I just finished reading The New Killer Apps (How Large Companies Can Out-Innovate Start-Ups) by Chunka Mui and Paul Carroll. It was particularly germane to me since I work in an exceptionally large firm and my role is centered on innovation. As I reflect on the thesis of the book, I find myself energized to bring some of the lessons to bear on initiatives in which I am currently involved.
The authors assert that large organizations have the tools and resources to be the World's leading innovators, if only they could get out of their own way. It's my experience that they are spot on. I've been to the conferences. I've spoken with others involved in innovation in other large firms. The creativity is there, the means are there, but the inertia and corporate antibodies have a way of squelching that inventive spirit. Mui and Carroll offer a simple directive: Thing Big, Start Small, Learn Fast.
Pulling on their previous work (the original Killer Apps book and Billion Dollar Lessons) as well as their relationships with some of the world's truly great innovators (like Alan Kay and Gordon Bell), the the authors go on to prescribe tactics for setting the right context for innovation to flourish, as well as actions to take in order to get traction on the wheels of innovation within the leviathan of a large organization.
One note of interest is a concept pulled from Billion Dollar Lessons which is the role of Devil's Advocate. The idea that you create the role of a nay-sayer. Not just to poo-poo ideas, but someone that you not only give the freedom to look for flaws in your plans, but you make it their responsibility to find them. The thought is that it's easy to get so caught up in the romance of a new idea that you forget to look out for the pitfalls. The Devil's Advocate's job is to spot the issues before you get to them.
Another beautiful concept they recommend is to write the "future history" of the innovation you hope to bring to bear. By switching your perspective to the future, you anticipate successes and failures that you don't with your head in the present. I've written previously about the benefits of getting people's heads out of the client site when solving for the future and this is a specific tactic for doing so.
The afterword about Xerox PARC is especially encouraging in the way it points out that while many view PARC as a series of missed opportunities since so many others profited from their work, they still turned a relatively small investment into a $100 billion dollar business selling laser printers (and helping to create the market that would buy them). The point is that when companies (even overwhelmingly large ones) give themselves the permission to explore the future, they can't help but spill a few innovations along the way.
This book is an easy and fun read for anyone interested in innovation, but should be required reading for company leadership to understand that having the courage to take many small steps into the unknown (even knowing those small steps may lead nowhere) opens the door to multiple-thousand-times return on investment.