Radical Innovation: A Conversation with Idris Mootee

A longer version of this Q&A originally appeared on the Intrapreneurship Conference website.

What does the corporation of the future look like?

IntraConf: Beyond the buzzwords and the hype, what is radical innovation, really? Is it even possible for big legacy organizations to be and do radical?

Idris Mootee: That’s a really good question; lots of people talk about it and use the word sort of randomly and casually. So, what is radical innovation? Really, it depends – every organization is at a different stage of their life cycle. Some might be at a kind of survival stage, and for them radical literally means something that will actually save them or their industries. And for others, perhaps they’re in a good position where they’re simply thinking about the future and trying to come up with radical new ideas that will actually help propel them forward.

Now, those two are at a very different sort of starting point, and each of them is very difficult in different respects. For the survival types, most of the time they’re starting too late. If they did happen to be a bit ahead of the game and can mobilize the company fast enough, and they still have some sort of decent cash flow or something they can convert into cash flow, and they can retain the right people and show them the shared vision and the destiny forward – they still have a chance.

I would say that 80-90% of the time the companies I’ve seen at that stage are either too late, or if it’s not too late they can’t mobilize their people because the good ones are already gone. Good people are often the first to jump ship when they see things are not working, particularly in an ultra-competitive environment for top talent. So in that case, it’s a very tough one.

The others, these are generally companies that are a little more forward thinking and want to create a playground for radical thinking that doesn’t fit in with the current state of the corporate strategy.

The problem for them is that most companies in this situation are not desperate enough. Most of the really radical ideas can’t even go through.

Radical innovation is not about playing outside the box; it is the art of changing the box’s shape altogether.

They will say the ideas are too small, or don’t have any synergistic value with the current asset, or they don’t have the capabilities or the market is too far away: all those reasons, or excuses, depends on how you look at it, are forcing them to say that even though they may come up with some radical ideas, they can’t or won’t take action on them. I would say less than 5% of companies jump on the radical – I mean they do things, they explore, but they don’t do anything from an action perspective.

So is your advice to still try and organize for reinvention?

A company has a better chance if they are structured properly. I think there are problems on the board level, where these people are sitting at the board level and asking: How do we preserve yesterday’s industries?

Most board members don’t look into the future. And most companies don’t even have a department that looks into the future.

When your future is your strategy, then you start thinking about what that future is, what it looks like, how you fit. Without that strategy part, they jump right into the tactical side – let’s create a lab, let’s do these things, let’s fund this business. It’s almost like random lottery tickets, you start buying them and hopefully some of them will turn out to be winners. But that is not a strategy.

I don’t think that most companies are organized in a way that allows them, in an agile but structured way, to play. Even their investment criteria should be a bit different. I don’t think they have overcome that on the financial side and on the corporate governance side. The degree at which a company accepts risk – that’s the thing that is different. Most big companies will accept more risk, right. The degree that the company can attract talent that will take those risks is key, because in large corporations, you mess up one time, you’re out. Nobody wants to bet their 20-year career with a big firm on that.

So, having that place where people can take risks, a place that people are actually allowed to take risks, and also the right kind of mechanism for them to play within the box. I don’t think companies know how to structure it. I think companies will figure that out in the next couple years because, without that, they can’t play in this game at all.

The right structure and people are crucial. Do companies need different types of employee to succeed? What type of people should we be looking for?

Today, most innovation has a technology component, and it doesn’t matter what technology. Most senior executives today, sitting in the C-suite, are not tech-friendly. They came from a world where, as a general manager, they mastered marketing, operations, finance; technology was somewhere in R&D or design, so it’s not in their area of expertise. To find people to run new internal ventures, people who have a senior management perspective and understand business as a whole, the ecosystems, and are also very comfortable with technology and the agile way of doing business? That’s extremely difficult.

You can find these 30-year-olds who are very opportunity-driven, passionate, who understand the market easily, but they don’t have the managerial sophistication to mobilize something bigger, particularly in industries like banking, insurance, pharmaceutical, etc. that are more complicated.

The gap is very difficult to navigate. Sure, we can say we’re looking for someone who has 20 years of industry experience and is familiar with x, y, and z technologies – but it’s not always possible!

One last question. Looking back over the last 2-3 years, what’s the thing you’ve achieved with clients that you’re most proud of?

We’re very proud of showing them the model that I described and that we put together to help them solve problems. It’s not a consultancy model. I think that  every organization should be modelled around a more fluid model, instead of keeping people stuck in operations, or marketing, or finance all their life, or maybe they rotate every 10 years if they’re lucky. Companies should start attracting millennials, put them in different parts of the company, and then develop new capabilities. We always ask: do you have foresight capability? We’re very proud that it’s helping companies to think about the future and activate on it.

If a company doesn’t have a department to think about the future, then they have a big problem. You need one. You also need a department who thinks about design, not just from a design aesthetic but design from empathetic views. How do we bring humanity into everything we produce, whether its a customer experience or a product or service?

This is not how most companies see the world, they see the world as: we have customer service, we figure out how to answer your call in 2 seconds, we know how to discriminate customers based on people who can’t afford us, and then we treat them very poorly, and then we go and bombard those who don’t need our services. These sort of things, these mindsets, have to change and so we’re very proud to show clients the future model.

I hope that in ten-twenty years every corporation will have some kind of organization design with capabilities that we began nurturing here.

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