In the last couple of years I have taken up vegetable gardening as a hobby. I’ve now progressed to the point that I start my own seeds in the house, and raise them until I can transplant them in the garden once the risk of frost has passed. Over the weekend as I was tending to these young tender plants, the realization of how this illustrates the fuzzy front end of innovation came to me.
Innovation requires high potential ideas (the seeds) and an organization that can nurture and support them as they develop (the soil). Obviously, both are required; seeds in a packet are just untapped potential, the greatest soil without seeds is just inviting weeds. While I could elaborate on this point further, let’s assume both of these items are in place and you have ideas that have sprouted. What are the risks you face now?
In gardening, there are three key risks that young plants must be protected from: Weather, Weeds and Pests. I think this analogy supports each of these same risks. Think of it as the following…
Weather – It’s not the day to day sun and/or rain that you worry about, it’s the sudden changes that cause problems. Unexpected frost, flooding, strong winds are all examples in nature of conditions that can wipe out young plants. In the corporate world its also the unexpected that causes significant risk. Sudden changes in priorities, funding, staffing will wipe out high potential ideas as quickly as a frost will kill a plant. It is critical to protect your ideas from such conditions, where possible by isolating them from the unexpected situation.
Weeds – Any gardener knows that weeds left unchecked will take over a garden and rob the desirable plants of the nutrients that are required for them to grow. Likewise, in a corporate setting weeds are the distractions that arise from the culture and slowly choke out a powerful idea by diverting the necessary resources to other areas. This doesn’t happen overnight, but rather gradually over time. A wise gardener will remove the weeds as they surface rather than letting them form a stronghold. A wise innovation manager will do the same thing.
Pests – These come in many forms, but always come from outside the garden. Their goal is to consume the plant for their own purposes, then leave when it is no longer of interest. In the corporate world, these could be people that are outside the project team, that want to put their “stamp” on an idea so they can selfishly take credit later. They are far less concerned about the health of the idea than being able to point to something they added. This could be an individual or an entire department. In either case, it is critical to be on the lookout for Pests, and repel them as efficiently as possible.
There are numerous additional analogies I could draw from this, from keeping the soil in prime condition, to harvesting at the right time. But for now, I’ll leave it as it is. In the meantime, my tomato plants have taken on a whole new meaning!