Marketers Must Spot Innovation Microcultures

Keeping track of new product rollouts in the technology sector these past several weeks has been a time-consuming task.  We’ve seen the launch of Windows 8 and Surface from Microsoft.  Nintendo’s new Wii U consoles hit store shelves right before Christmas.  And Nokia just wowed the tech world with an announcement that it will provide a “3D printing” blueprint of the shell for its newest iteration of the Lumia smartphone…a clear leapfrog move over arch competitors Apple and Google.  Who knows? Nokia’s 3D printing moves may yet herald a return to profitability for the beleaguered phone giant.

Marketers Must Spot Innovation Microcultures image SMC Scrunched GlobeGiven the trend toward all-things-mobile and almost-everything-virtual, companies developing technology platforms will continue to see hyperfast development cycles. Compression of the product development cycle in tech sectors to a scant eighteen months is creating big ripple effects internally as well as across supplier networks.  These days, leaders want to “find” innovation in as many places as possible.  But they often miss it.

And this impacts marketers.  Marketers are breathing the same air as the new product development teams.  They are putting the best possible knowledge into strategy, launch campaigns, messaging, packaging, and the brand’s promise.

But I believe part of a marketer’s role is also to recognize innovation pockets—sometimes nascent and unsung—within the companies they serve.  This is true whether marketers are operating as internal employees or consultants viewing product and service development processes from the outside.

Marketers can add value both short- and long-term by spotting the innovation microcultures within an organization.  We must recognize where innovation microcultures are operating, finding the proverbial lights under the basket…and helping them shine.

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No More Stranded Assets

Instead of remaining stranded assets or operating as distant cousins within a company, innovation microcultures have an ability to influence the larger organization as never before.  A microculture can range in size from a small cluster of ten to twelve people or as large as thirty or forty people operating within a single division or laboratory.  Microcultures can exceed fifty people if they are virtually networked.

Looking back even just a few years, we can see the difference in how microcultures are operating today versus earlier in the millennium.  Consider the team at Motorola that invented the revolutionary Razr phone in 2004.  Sprouted from the minds of a hand-picked group of less than twelve people, and headed by then unsung design maven Roger Jellicoe, development of the Razr received the focused attentions of Motorola CEO Ed Zander.  The Razr’s sleek design revolutionized the world of mobile phones and proved a huge marketplace success.

But the magic fizz resident within the Razr team didn’t clone itself elsewhere within Motorola.  The microculture within the Razr team didn’t take hold elsewhere.  No other “pockets” or segments within the company successfully amped the extraordinary learning from that team.  Motorola failed to leverage the Razr innovation microculture.

Now, consider a second example:  the successful launch of Kinect from Microsoft in 2010. Conceived years earlier by a handful of software engineers and designers operating in dispersed geographic pockets within Microsoft, Kinect originated as Project Natal circa 2005. The complex ecosystem of technologies needed to make a controller free environment a reality had to be conceived, licensed, and internally developed over a period of nearly five years.  But the project didn’t get formal funding until well after it had been “started” informally by the company’s internal microculture.  In essence, Kinect arose from pockets of like-minded gamers who believed they could create the next generation of gaming—even though this was not an express mandate from the powers that be at Microsoft.

That’s an innovation microculture.

Inside Microsoft, a band of extraordinary warriors whose culture was not the most innovation-friendly found a way to keep Project Natal’s heartbeat alive.  The cross-mapping of interests within the company took place digitally.  Outposts of software programmers and gamers connected virtually to put the concept together, ultimately developing a formal project brief that received funding.

The “Borg World” of Designers at Microsoft

We can trace a similar microculture phenomenon behind Microsoft’s recent—and very stubborn—embrace of better product design and sleeker ergonomics.  Steve Ballmer, never a proponent of product design ala arch nemesis Apple or retail innovator Target, has seen new product design signatures bubble up from pockets of Microsoft.

There’s a Borg-like quality to Microsoft’s design culture—as if the Redmond hive mind had to assimilate this type of product thinking before it could accomplish the task…“We have to decide that something is important, otherwise it never gets done. It doesn’t matter how many people in the trenches believe that something is important.  But when we decide that something is important, we have an enormous capacity for progress.  We’ve had an innate capacity to do this all along; it’s just we have recognized the value of [design] as a company and strategically we have decided to make it a much higher priority.”

So while Microsoft does not have an innovation culture, it does have innovation microcultures.  And this may be the primary way it survives the slippery slope the company currently rides in the technology realm.

I take up the concept of microcultures in my new book, Midnight Lunch: The 4 Phases of Team Collaboration Success, from Thomas Edison’s Lab, offering thoughts on how we can bring greater collaboration focus to innovation efforts in the digital era.

Microcultures are becoming a crucial starting point for broader innovation engagement by an organization in toto.  Microcultures are characterized by a hum of activity that cannot be squelched.  Not by toxic leaders, not by dwindling resources, not by corporate hierarchies.

As a marketer, actively seek to spot—and probe—the innovation microcultures in your company.  As a marketer, you can help weave the story about how the microcultures you find can impact the broader ecosystem of the organization.  Microcultures can activate innovation driving practices which can spread like a fever, if they are nourished properly.

Or you can look for microcultures in the supplier networks that serve your organization. This is an approach fostered by famed innovator Thomas Edison.  Sitting atop an innovation colossus, Edison sought to bring in only those vendors whose appetite for innovation matched his own. The network of hand-selected providers Edison identified each fostered innovation microcultures within their teams. Edison worked diligently to develop coherent, shared goals across his teams to link with this external network.

Edison’s network of external providers included companies like Corning Glass, J.P. Morgan, The Babcock & Wilcox Company, Ansonia Copper & Brass, and Spencer Trask. These firms offered expertise as diverse as manufacturing glass or metals to developing new construction materials and offering financing.  Edison’s supplier networks all had innovation microcultures resident within their four walls.

Marketers need to expand their understanding of innovation initiatives at work in unseen pockets of their organization.  Walk into the lab.  Probe the design studios.  Step into the back rooms.  Find the “borgs” lurking in your company’s virtual network. Spotting innovation microcultures offers an excellent place for marketers to add value.

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