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Published on 04/30/2023
Last updated on 05/10/2024

How do you tame your wild Innovation? Domesticating Innovation for Success


Ever wonder why Zebras have never been domesticated successfully, but horses have? Surprisingly, few animals have successfully been domesticated over the thousands of years of human settlements. Of all the animals around the planet, the few domestic animals are the dog, cat, horse, goat, sheep, cow, chicken and pig. Merriam-Webster can define domestication of animals as: “: the adaptation of a plant or animal from a wild or natural state (as by selective breeding) to life in close association with humans.”

When we think about methodologies for Innovation and how careful selecting “breeding” of innovation could yield better innovation ideas, projects and outcomes.  Could we look at the elements of domestication of animals to learn about the best aspects of innovation and how we can domesticate our innovation practices across any organization? I think we can.

Of course, innovation can happen organically with an organization, just like animals evolve naturally in the wild. But for an innovation practice, we need to think about the characteristic of innovation management that increases the odds of delivering successful innovative ideas that can be brought to market.  How can we domesticate innovation?

In his book “Guns, Germs and Steel” (Norton, 1997), Jared Diamond listed six criteria for animals to be domesticated successfully. Each of these is translatable directly to an innovation practice. Remove the word “Animal” and substitute “Innovation,” and we have observations to help any innovation practice.

  1. First, animals must have a flexible and efficient diet.  They must be able to live on food in and around human civilization.  What does this mean for Innovation? Innovation must be able to thrive on the available resources.  At Cisco, as our innovation ideas progress through our innovation pipeline, each concept will have different teams working on it. The ideas will access various experts, developers, resources, dedicated time, feedback, and guidance - all the “food” for the idea to grow.

The innovation idea must be flexible enough to use those resources.  Any innovation idea must live within the means of the organization to support it.  It will not succeed if it’s too big for the organization to support. The innovation needs to benefit from different funding levels or be agile enough to improve various experts and technologies. The more it can do this, the more it is likely to succeed.  Sometimes the outcome of the innovation is not what it started as.  Through the journey of innovation, sometimes it’s learned that a problem isn’t big enough to merit the effort of solving it.  Perhaps the technology isn’t in the right place to solve it.  Sometimes the input from experts or customers requires a course correction. The more agile an innovation idea is and can utilize these inputs for improvement, the more likely the innovation will succeed. It also makes it more likely to reach deployment or be morphed into something the market can absorb. Innovation ideas, just like animals, cannot be too picky in their diet to grow and develop.

  1. Animals must reach maturity quickly relative to the human life span. Just like animals, innovations must achieve maturity in a time relative to the innovation practice.  One of the common beliefs in many innovation circles is that innovation must fail fast and move on. We see innovations that do not mature quickly - being swiftly exited, and this is important.  Organizations cannot afford to pump unlimited resources at innovations that do not exhibit having the correct elements to mature.  So there need to be ways to assess how quickly ideas progress and mature and pull the plug when needed.  Innovations that languish in their infancy rarely take off.  Any robust innovation pipeline must consider the maturity cycle of an idea and decide when it’s time to stop investing and shelve the idea.

How long is too long?  That depends on the criteria assessment and usually some degree of subjective evaluation of where the roadblocks are perceived.  But it’s worth remembering the difference between innovation and research and development.  Innovation doesn’t subscribe to productized roadmaps the way R&D does, and the outcome is often far less certain. But the innovation process must help to clear hurdles impeding maturity. Perhaps this innovation doesn’t have the right sponsor or doesn’t have enough funding.  Maybe the innovation is ready to scale but hasn’t been adopted by a go-to-market partner. Whatever the roadblock, there cannot be an inexhaustible timeframe and infinite resources thrown at it.  Rapid maturity is needed for domesticated innovation.

  1. Animals must be willing to breed in captivity.  Like animals, innovation needs to spawn new ideas, new offshoots, and new child projects. Reproduction in the innovation world means that some ideas will not proceed in their current form. Still, they need to generate new alternate ideas where the makeup of one idea informs the next, or ideas merge and become an entirely new venture. Reproduction is critical for innovation success. Spawning new ways of approaching problems or new technologies driving different ways of thinking about specific issues is a core factor for innovation.

  2. Animals must be docile in nature. Docile isn't the key here because innovation shouldn’t be docile, it should be disruptive, but the critical point is that it should not be destructive. We need innovation to be considered disruptive and help challenge thinking, drive new directions to solve the problem, or agitate others to think differently and in a new way. But like animals for domestication, the innovations should be “easy-going”; they shouldn’t be unpredictable or dangerous. Innovation shouldn’t be destructive to the environment it needs to exist in nor the users of the innovation. Whether that is for the team working on the project or the final user group, it must not be dangerous or unpredictable because that will make the trust of the innovation or the process challenging to maintain and practical usage unlikely.

  3. Animals cannot have a strong tendency to panic and flee when startled. Whether it’s an innovation project, an idea or a process, it needs to stand up to a degree of inspection, challenge and assessment. Any innovation idea that collapses too quickly or doesn't withstand scrutiny means that it’s unlikely to warrant the continued effort and should be considered carefully if it’s practical to continue with this effort.

Think about any innovation that we see today. That innovation must have had to go through rigorous review. So any innovation must be somewhat resilient and stand up to challenges from leadership, questioning the validity of the solution, market readiness, consumer demand or overall feasibility. This is a test of how much to continue or shut down this innovation.

  1. Animals must be able to conform to a social hierarchy dominated by strong leadership. Except perhaps the domestic house cat, all the major domesticated animals conform to this characteristic. Leadership is a critical component to how innovation is encouraged and allowed to thrive in any environment. The characteristic of being dominated by leadership is vital to any innovation practice. Leadership needs to be able to influence, guide or alter the direction of innovation. Likewise, the innovation needs to be receptive to the leadership guidance and needs to adhere to requirements or considerations of leadership. Innovation needs to be modified by the leaders in an organization. It needs to recognize who its pack leaders are, just as animals need to acknowledge their human caretaker as the pack leader.

In every innovation practice, we cultivate an environment to nurture and deliver successful innovation or create one that harms it. Every innovation practice will have ways of encouraging or hindering ideas and projects and bringing them to reality. Learning from thousands of years of human to animal domestication will give us ways of thinking about innovation. While dogs and cats are our most treasured animals, it still took thousands of years to domesticate them to where they are today. Let’s learn how to domesticate our innovations quicker and better by applying what we learned about domesticating animals.

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