Here is an excerpt from an article written by Mitra Best for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.
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People often ask me why it’s so hard for big companies to be innovative. My answer is “corporate antibodies” — the people and processes that extinguish a new idea as soon as it begins to course through the organization.
Corporate antibodies are not just naysayers; they are necessary to protect the company from risk. When they attack an idea, it’s because they perceive that idea to be a foreign object trying to harm the stability of the organization. But that doesn’t mean innovation can’t happen, even in the biggest, most entrenched firm. It simply means that senior leaders need to prepare their antibody system not only to identify ideas that are too risky but to recognize the ones that will strengthen and grow the company.
Easy to say, of course.
At PwC, we learned a powerful lesson in how to engage our corporate antibodies. We learned it through our experience with an internal contest — “PowerPitch” — in which we challenged everyone in the firm to submit a business brief proposing our next $100 million opportunity. It was fun to bring our finalists to New York as if they were American Idol contestants ready for their close-ups. In the end though, the competition wasn’t about the flash and dazzle. It was a lesson in how to prime the organization to become an optimal environment for innovation to thrive — an effort that started a full year before the competition was held.
How did we do it? We began by lining up the biggest sponsor to champion the project, identifying the most powerful naysayers to help us mitigate the risks we were about to introduce, and then systematically recruiting our general management structure to do the real legwork.
[Here are two of the initiives that Mitra discusses.]
Getting the Big Gun on Board
We started at the top — by convincing PwC chairman Bob Moritz that he needed to lead the charge in a high-profile way. He manifested his support with two of the most potent weapons a chief executive has — empowerment and sponsorship.
By establishing the Innovation Office, and empowering me with resources to run it, he sent a crucial signal to the organization that innovation is on top of his agenda. By explicitly sponsoring the contest, he put his weight behind the initiative. He launched the contest through a companywide Webcast and reinforced the importance of innovation to the future of the organization through a series of e-mail communications. He was relying, he said, on absolutely every single person to participate. That got people going.
Getting the Naysayers to Join Us
It wasn’t hard to identify the most powerful corporate antibodies. They were the people whose job it is to worry about risks to the on-going organization — legal, risk management, finance, IT, and the brand team. To make them into allies, we held a series of highly personalized meetings in which we asked each person to use his or her core area of expertise to help us plan out the details of our PowerPitch initiative. For example, we sought the Office of General Counsel’s help in developing terms and conditions for the contest. We collaborated with our CFO to think through the budget and prize strategy. We engaged our brand team to help us increase the impact of the project through our newly launched visual identity.
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Mitra M. Best is the U.S. Innovation Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, leading the disciplined approach to inspire, evaluate and implement innovative ideas across and throughout the organization with the critical mission to support the development of new services and market opportunities across industries. Mitra influences and advises PwC senior leaders on new ideas and approaches to organizational strategy, works with clients and third parties to foster open innovation, and promotes the PwC brand as an innovative leader in the marketplace.