Enterprise innovators need more “friends” in this digital era

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There are few greater quotes on enterprise innovation than one from the mouth of prickly, world-renowned (and fictional) food critic Anton Ego in the Disney Pixar movie Ratatouille.

Simply stated: “The new needs friends!”

As with many great quotes, it’s beauty is in its simplicity. We can immediately identify with it, not just because it’s so simple, but because we’ve all been a friend or enemy of driving disruptive but constructive change.

“Friends” is an interesting word in the 21st century. It used to be taken quite literally. In our youth, friends were on our football team, and rode bikes with us down the street. When we were a little older, they might stuff into a car with us to drive to Daytona for spring break. When we started our first jobs, they were the folks who went out together after work.

This is still partially true, but now — in the digital era — friends are also followers, some of whom we follow regardless of the depth of our personal or professional relationships. That said, their loyalty is still critical when socializing innovation and battling naysayers, in some cases much more so than our traditional friends.

These “friends” in the digital world, if mobilized, are the buttress to the skeptics and contrarians of disruption. They’re critical to success, but they’re often overlooked. That’s because the innovator persona may not be prone to promoting their personal brand or innovation. Instead, they’re apt to be sitting in a cubicle with a hoodie, rarely looking up from crunching code when someone pokes their head in. We can only imagine how many innovations are stillborn simply because the inventor can’t establish the network of “friends” necessary to bring it to reality.

So, does the enterprise have the ability to establish a risk-reward structure that not only encourages cubicle-driven skunkworks, but also provides a path into the mainstream for those not likely to emancipate their innovations on their own?

I had a Chairman and mentor who, after many years, banned all the proforma business plans hundreds of Ivy league MBA’s submitted to him for new launches. He changed the procedure to one of submitting enough customer “letters of intent” to contract the new product or service to fund 50% of the investment in year one. Then he would look at the proforma.

These taught me two things. First, all of this is meaningless if we don’t consider friends as being synonymous with customers. And secondly, yes, the new needs friends … but especially those who write checks!

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