Raj Krishnan Shankar is an associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Great Lakes Institute of Management. Prior to joining Great Lakes, Raj was an associate professor of entrepreneurship at Nord University, Norway. He joined the academic world after over a decade of consulting and entrepreneurship experience. Raj completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Nord University after receiving his doctorate from Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India. He holds a B.E in computer science from Madras University and an MBA in finance from Symbiosis Institute of International Business. Prior to joining the doctoral program, Raj worked as a consultant with Deloitte Touché Tohmatsu and i-flex Consulting (now Oracle). His entrepreneurial endeavor (ichiban Consultants) involved helping emerging enterprises achieve scale. Raj Shankar also holds an appointment as a Visiting Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at Nord University Business School in Bodo, Norway.
The 2021 edition of BCG’s long running “Most Innovative Companies” global innovation survey shows that “innovation’ has become a top three priority for an overwhelming 75% of responding organizations. Alarmingly, only 50% of them are putting real resources behind their innovation initiatives. If CEOs know that innovation is critical for their organizations’ health and wellness, why aren’t they investing in innovation initiatives? Why is there so much “innovation theatre” and so little “innovation?”
Once central reason for this gap to persist is that “Innovation” has become a catch-all phrase. As with all phrases in this category, innovation has come to mean nothing and everything. Most, if not all organizations have some innovation programs. Innovation programs range from design sprints, to hackathons, and even incubation programs. Despite all the noise around incubation initiatives, why do leaders feel that their innovation programs have not delivered on their expectations?
In this article, I go back to Pfeffer and Sutton’s 1999 idea of “knowing-doing gap”—the space between what organizations know they should do and what they do. They clearly indicate that knowing “what” to do is insufficient and identify reasons how organizations can potentially overcome this “gap.” One of the strongest recommendations provided by Pfeffer and Sutton is to engage more frequently in thoughtful action. Yet, most innovation programs spend a significant part of their efforts in skill development, purchase of new technologies, creativity workshops, and the like. Even the organizations that engage in hackathons and well-intentioned idea development programs see little participation from their employees. Some reasons for these include: stifling bureaucracy; fear of failure; and limited support for rapid experimentation. In the remaining article, we explore some possible ways in which organizations can reduce this “knowing-doing gap” so as to encourage higher levels of creativity and innovation among their employees.
It is not uncommon to see organizations today offer design thinking workshops for their employees. These workshops use human-centered design thinking tools and frameworks and equip employees with a designer’s toolkit. The participants come away highly inspired and creatively confident about using the design thinking approach at their organization. But all this euphoria ends a few hours or days after the workshop ends. Most, if not all employees go back to the grind and become busy. Soon enough, the knowledge of designer-ly ways to solve organizational challenges evaporates, and all well-intentioned learning and development initiatives do not deliver. One solution is to provide such inputs as part of a larger program. For example, look at Adobe’s “kickbox” which consists of a small, red cardboard box saying “pull in case of idea.” The box contains instructions to “beat” the box, a pen, post-it notes, timer, notebooks, chocolate, $10 Starbucks gift card and importantly a $1,000 prepaid card for employees to spend however they like without justification or approvals. As Mark Randall who initiated this program said that instead of finding and funding a million dollar idea, the same funds can be used to fund one thousand, thousand dollar experiments. The beauty of this program is that anyone can apply for a kickbox (no need manager’s approval, etc); there is no obligation to meet a timeline; and no judgement or penalty for a failed project. The program is built on six-levels: inception, ideate, improve, investigate, iterate, and infiltrate. Every higher level has greater expectations. For instance, to beat the level four box, you will require to create a website for testing your idea; and to beat level five, you will need to have at least a 100 visitors. The entire program is systematically designed to enable employees act on their ideas and keep developing them towards a prototype. Through the process, senior leadership is directly aware of the ideas and their journey.
How does Adobe’s kickbox overcome the knowing-doing gap? First, the program is centered around action. It all starts by opening a kickbox—backed with resources. Second, the six-level program makes getting started simple and easy. Employees do not need to ask if their idea will become the next unicorn to begin. Adobe encourages people to start and move along. They also provide an education program for employees on skills required to develop their ideas. Third, by removing the need for approvals to start and/or move ahead, they reduce the stifling tendency of bureaucracy. Fourth and finally, by dropping timelines and penalties for failure, they reduce the fear of experimentation. Adobe’s kickbox program is clearly a well-designed program to spur creativity within organizations and overcome the “knowing-doing gap” within innovation. Interestingly, Adobe has turned their “kickbox” program into an open source initiative so that all can try. A nice initiative to make the world a better place. What are you waiting for? Go ahead and create your own version of an action-oriented innovation program.