Dr. Kaihan Krippendorff is a top business strategist, blogger, author and founder of the ‘The Outthinker’ Network (a community comprised of strategy executives from the world’s top Fortune 500 and private companies). In his new book, Driving Innovation From Within: A Guide for Internal Entrepreneurs, he provides a powerful set of tools and framework for individuals to make their mark on the world from within their workplace. To know more about the work of Kaihan, or buy his book, please visit his website kaihan.net.
What follows here are snippets from our conversation with Kaihan - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for the great insight!
Agnes Uhereczky: Before we dive in and discuss the book and your research, could you explain please to our listeners the way through which you transitioned from consulting to founding your own company and what was it that triggered your interest in looking more closely into employee innovators.
Kaihan Krippendorff: I started my career in strategy and that has for a long time been a passion of mine. I think that stems from my German father who took a trip to Japan when I was young, and he came back with some books on Zen and Zen Koan, and I started to get interested in this genre which led me to Sun Tzu, and the genre of strategy books. From a very young age - I also practice martial arts - I was interested in strategy and thinking which led me to persuade a career in strategy. My first two books were really about creative strategy; I took these Chinese strategic patterns and showed how you could use them as an ideation exercise to generate innovative and strategic ideas. How do you come up with an idea? Where do big ideas come from? I really fell in love with that question!
I left McKinsey when I wrote my first book, which made sense for me to quit my job in order to do what I was really passionate about, which in this book I seek to disprove now. I also wanted to do this ideation work. So, for a long time, sometimes for free I would go to companies and say "Can I do an ideation workshop for you over lunch?". Over the next 3-5 years, I built this methodology for ideating. I found that the ideas when you ideate within an established company they often go nowhere. They often hit this bureaucracy and the culture, or the company is too big and slow. I started to feel a little bit like a fraud if you will. Because I was telling people "we can help you come up with really big ideas’ but in the back of my mind I was thinking: but in order to persuade them you probably have to quit your job in the way I did". So strategy and innovation are my areas but then I got really interested in the question in not just where the ideas come from - a question in which I have been really interested in until this point - but where do they go.
Agnes Uhereczky: This reminds me of two things. First, when we go to conferences from which we come back with great ideas and inspiration, and only put those ideas into our drawers the next day. But also reminds me of our experience in working with organisations that sometimes feel that unless there is a clear commitment from management to change the system in which employees are, initiatives can easily fail flat.
Kaihan Krippendorff: If you have a product and you know that it is a great product, but your customers don’t want it, is it still a great product? When we apply that now inside an organisation - and this is the big mental shift I found interviewing these successful innovators - we find that they view the organisation as a customer, and the idea is not a good idea if it will not generate support and residence from the organisation, just like a product not be a good product if it doesn't with the customer.
Agnes Uhereczky: One thing I speak a lot about at the WorkLife HUB podcast is the importance of trust in an organisation. What is your experience? Is trust a factor in creating innovation within an organisation?
Kaihan Krippendorff: Yes. The idea of psychological safety and when that is present is very fundamental to creating an organisation that allows innovation to happen. It works at two different levels. The first one happens at the individual level, and research into entrepreneurial intention, which is before you take an entrepreneurial action there has to be the intention to take that action. What creates or holds back that intention? One of three next conversations. They are referred to as limiting beliefs. One is ‘it's not possible here’ another one is ‘it might be possible here, but I am not capable’ but the third one is ‘what will the social reaction be’. And so if we have a culture where someone proposes an idea and the reaction is laughter or teasing or anything negative, it very quickly removes the intention and stops the ideas at the source.
Agnes Uhereczky: According to your research only 8 out of 30 biggest innovations in the past decades were by entrepreneurs and the rest by employees. Who are these unsung heroes? Do we know more about them?
Kaihan Krippendorff: That was the finding that really took me in the hunt to finish this book. I looked at the source of big innovations - and I am not talking about Facebook, but the Internet, DNA sequencing, email or mobile phones, the big innovations that have really been transformative. And as you mentioned only 8 of the 30 were born out of entrepreneurs. What that means is that if it was not possible for employee innovators to innovate you would live in a world without a mobile phone or email. We would live in a radically inferior world. The reason that I am so passionate about flipping this narrative because when you look at the list of most innovative people they all follow this remarkably similar path, and if you break down that path, for example, the garage you talked about, it is just a really compelling story to tell. The reason that I really think we need to flip this narrative is to tell these stories and tell people what is possible.
Agnes Uhereczky: I liked when you explained the world we would live in without these innovations. It just instantly made me think of the story of Ikea in your book and how just one employee who could not fit a table which he was delivering to a client into his car leads him unscrewing the legs which led to the flat packing business model. What kind of world we would live in if we had to buy our Ikea furniture assembled?
Kaihan Krippendorff: What I love about that case is that it wasn’t Ingvar Kamprad who developed that idea. He saw the solution then picked it and helped the company adopt it. But that did not come to be until ten years of Ikea founding. These innovations happen over time. It is often not the founder, and not the founder’s initial idea.
iPhone wasn’t the initial idea or Amazon web services were not the initial idea. Those ideas also came from employees.
Agnes Uhereczky: In your research did you find some common elements of the enabling environment that managers or leadership can create to foster innovative behaviour, but also the entrepreneurial intuition? Are there common barriers that you identified leaders need to remove to clear the path for innovators?
Kaihan Krippendorff: There are two different things we could talk about. One is that I looked at every research report I could find that showed a statistically significant correlation some organisation attribute and higher levels of internal innovation. There is quite a bit that is known to be invalidated and some things that are validated we don’t realize are true. But if you take these they cluster into talent, organizational structures, culture and leadership. These four sets of drivers are the way through which I think you could build the right organisation. This is when you look at it from the top-down. When you look at it from the bottom up from the perspective of employee innovators, we find that there are seven barriers that they face. So I asked the interviewed 150 people what they see as the most critical barrier to driving innovation within and how do you overcome that. Seven frequently cited barriers emerge.