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Innovating ‘innovation at scale’

by Marla M. Capozzi on November 15, 2012


marla-m-capozzi's picture

Innovating ‘innovation at scale’

Co-Authored By Ari Kellen

Marla Capozzi is a senior expert in McKinsey's Boston office and Ari Kellen is a director in McKinsey's New Jersey office.

Game-changing innovation is a beautiful thing. Disruptive products and services are unleashed. New markets are created. Customers smile, employees cheer and shareholders win. What’s not to like?

The problem is that large companies find game-changing innovation staggeringly difficult to achieve. Recently we analyzed the performance of 750 large companies in the 10 years to 2008. Apple was the only incumbent in this period to grow by creating new markets repeatedly through disruptive innovation. ("The Perils of Best Practice: should you emulate Apple?" McKinsey Quarterly, September 2012)

Our analysis suggests that big companies should focus instead on what we call ‘innovation at scale’ – that is, achieving repeatable and sustainable organic growth from new products, services and business models that build on the core business. This approach, too, is challenging: just 6 percent of the companies we analyzed managed to innovate at scale consistently through the period. But innovation at scale seems to be within reach of many more companies than might succeed in creating brand new markets.

What does it take to innovate at scale? The first element is robust strategy. In our work with clients, we find that companies that innovate at scale have a deep understanding of their assets, capabilities and what makes them successful. They understand at a granular level where growth came from in the past and where it is likely to come from in future. Aspiring to double revenues by 2020 may be a terrific stretch goal, but it is not a strategy.

Robust strategy is important because it creates the framing and focus needed to drive greater innovation. Ask people simply to “innovate” and the likely response is a mishmash of ideas. Focus, which can come in the form of simple guard rails, provides the crucial guidance on what really matters to the company’s future success and what types of innovation are required. These factors allow people to experiment and take more risks.  

The second element needed for innovation at scale is careful attention to organization. While there is no set formula – organization must follow strategy, not be the starting point – our work with innovative companies points to a few areas on which to focus:

  • Innovation cannot be a side show. Companies that integrate innovation into strategic planning, budgeting and resource allocation are six times more likely to achieve desired financial targets. Leadership, especially in the c-suite, is closely correlated with innovation outcomes.
  • Stay ‘open’ longer.  Many companies now use open innovation principles to harvest ideas from consumers, employees and other stakeholders. But once the idea portfolio is set, the process is often surprisingly insular and linear. War gaming innovations early, and testing across multiple economic scenarios, can provide a market view and help to further refine ideas.
  • Structure to execute.  It is hard to find a clear correlation between organizational design – that is, use of innovation centers, incubators and labs – and successful innovation at scale. That said, these structures can be helpful ways to bring people together, allocate resources and track progress.  
  • Hand-pick talent.  Innovation projects staffed by volunteers tend to underperform those run by people selected for the role. This shouldn’t disqualify people who raise their hands for the right reasons (e.g., passionate about the idea, hunger to contribute) but it is a reminder that raw enthusiasm is no substitute for the right expertise and capabilities.

Of course, there remains a lot we don’t know about successful, repeatable innovation at scale. How do we build employee capabilities in experimentation, testing and prototyping? How do we apply a strengths-based approach to innovation, understanding that successful teams and networks require a range of different innovation aptitudes? How do we balance alignment with strategic priorities against openness to orthogonal ideas? What we do know is that innovating innovation at scale is a critical management challenge for every big company that cares about sustainable growth.

Do you have ideas or case studies to share on how to make innovation an every-where, all-the-time capability?  Please enter the Innovating Innovation Challenge, the first leg of the Harvard Business Review/McKinsey M-Prize for Management Innovation.

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frederic-jleconte's picture

Maria and Ari,
your inputs are inspiring.
I encourage you to check on Dimension 12 our hack where we mention your alignment questioning (cf 18 Black Holes : beyond boundaries of innovation. Think and explore multi-dimensions design).
Your bets are very facts and results based, so a safe way to innovation outputs.
However I enjoy when Mc Kinsey is also challenging about cloning of existing Best Practices and recipes for average results not being the best way to breakthrough.
And pushing bold tactics with so called "convexity", that is to say a reward for orthogonal ideas.
We are now lightly but certainly entangled....whatever you ay bring to the table will be adding to our thinking.Co-operative intelligence at work...Thanks a lot.

jim-smith_1's picture

As with most discussions about innovation, the assumption seems to be that innovation is mono-directional, dealing primarily with new products, new markets, new procedures, new, new, new, always looking forward.

Here's a story as an example of what that can mean: a guy has a high performance boat, he's obsessed with power and engines. Not sissified with current performance he researches all power options and settles on a revolutionary and proven new engine, which he promptly purchases and has installed. On his first and all subsequent sea trials, the boat still under performs. In desperation he consults an old boat repair specialists and has the answer in minutes. The guy points out that the owner has been so abscessed with innovative power sources that he had neglected the mundane;maintenance! The old guy explained that the boat had so many barnacles on the bottom creating drag, that no innovative engine could overcome this drag.

As we have seen time after time in our practice, when the CEO has the courage to look backwards and just stop doing things that no longer make sense, removing the cultural and political barnacles so to speak, then even modest innovation can have huge impacts on earnings.

One client tried the traditional approach for one year assigning a set reduction percentage to each officer and came up with $24 million in expense reductions, less than one percent.. Not nearly what they needed, then they took a different approach and turned to the employees and made sure management could not intervene until the anonymous employee suggestions were vetted, by outsiders. The result, in ten weeks employees successfully identified $300 million in sustainable SG&A reductions, a $200 million reduction in already approved capital, a one-time inventory reduction of $45 million and all this occurred in 10 weeks. In looking at the data, over 70% of the recommendations dealt with eliminating things that were started with good intention, later grew in size, became part of the culture, but now produced no vale. I'm not trying to be disrespectful, and am certainly not insensitive to employees losing their jobs, but what many leaders fail to realize is that employees, while feeling bad about layoffs, they also don't like to see their company doing stupid things because there's no no-risk way of identifying the problem.

Every company has these barnacles and most leaders would rather avoid the pain of pruning the base. Although not as glamorous as new product innovation, reverse innovation produces results substantially faster.

Innovation is bi-directional!