“Ambush” corporate makeovers and spontaneous innovation


Ok I admit it, I’m obsessed by the makeover segments on the morning talk shows. Hoda and Kathy Lee pull someone out of the audience with 1970s’ hair and a pair of mom jeans. One hour later they come out from behind the curtain, almost unrecognizably gorgeous, in a trendy party dress and a hair style that takes 10 years off their age. Their family weeps during the reveal, and the ambush target can say nothing but “Oh my god, oh my god !!”

It makes me think to myself about how corporate or brand re-do’s are so glacial. My experience is that by the time many companies release the makeover, the market has already shifted again.

And yes, just like with the ambush makeovers on TV, there is definitely a risk in being too hasty when applying a new style to an established brand or process. But isn’t there something to be said for a more spontaneous innovation that acts on impulse in much the same was fickle customers shift in their buying preferences?

Granted, spontaneous innovation has its risks. Personal history tells me that you know when it happens because you’ll say on the way out of the meeting/call, “oh my god, how are we ever going to pull this thing off ?”

The natural enemy of “ambush” corporate makeovers and spontaneous innovation is faint at heart senior enterprise management. They tend to feel that change needs to be analyzed in advance and deployed in a formulaic process over longer periods of time. They also feel that unless the innovation can be scaled immediately across all current customers (the innovators dilemma) there is no reason to waste the time.

The natural enemy of these execs are the ambush or spontaneous innovators, who gravitate target the right client for a more surgical innovation in expectation that it will scale after the smaller targeted success.

One can easily see that there is a rogue element to this approach to makeovers and innovation. This starts with the hiring philosophy of the enterprise. Most recruiters and hiring managers are extremely wary of corporate revolutionaries. That’s why there is no corporate reward structure that encourages disruption — there are, however, sometimes structures to block it.

In other words, the thought of transforming an old corporate look (or product) to something trendier in a matter of weeks or months gives headquarters heartburn. There are, however, three ways to accommodate both innovation anxiety and innovation obsession.

One is to put innovation on the slow track risking paralysis by analysis and a very slow trajectory for go-to-market strategy.

The second is to shift to a culture of disruptive innovation and eliminate glacial thinking by design or attrition. This must be accompanied by a rewards plan that encourages, or requires, creative risk taking.

The third, and arguably most realistic, is a hybrid approach which maintains sensitivity to more cautions headquarters management. It establishes small, high performance disruption teams that operate autonomously and away from the normal slow motion transformation bureaucracy, but that are still accountable for incremental revenue and protection of the brand.

These internal innovation studios or incubators are a way of identifying the high acceleration talent that thrive on things like ambush makeovers and spontaneous innovation. Combining them in a disruption friendly organization, even if only used ad hoc, is a way to balance tradition with transformation.

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