Overcoming internal power struggles in order to innovate

power-struggleThere has been much discussion over the past few decades about the challenges in innovating when you’ve already achieved success in the past.  Overcoming what was once successful for you can be a tremendous challenge.

Whilst this is traditionally played out in terms of existing products losing their edge and needing to be replaced by new ideas, a recent paper makes the case that this can equally apply to power centers in the organization.

The paper describes a startup that had achieved high levels of success through an engineering focus, and this strength was understandably imbued in the culture of the company.  To take things to the next level however, they need a greater focus on marketing.

Positions of power

The relative importance of the engineering team was largely a result of their tenure.  Those who had been there from the early days, and therefore had a major part to play in the engineering successes from that time, were heavily wedded to the notion of engineering being the answer to whatever the question may be.  Newer engineers lacked this attachment, and were therefore more open to other ideas.

In the marketing team, the reverse was true, with newer employees more radical in their notions that any changes should be marketing driven, whereas more experienced staff tended to put the company rather than the marketing function first.

This power battle went on for several months, leading to significant acrimony between the two departments.  Relations changed however when the company received an external shock.  When their revenue projections received a major jolt and bad news stories hit the media the relationship changed.  The marketing team saw the opportunity to shape the future of the company and took it, leading to acquiescence within the engineering ranks.

A common goal?

Whilst you might think that the external shock caused by the earnings statement would focus attention and rally everyone around a common goal, the reality was quite different.  Rather than coming together, the news caused an even bigger divide between the radical new recruits and the more moderate old timers.

The conciliatory behavior of the moderate marketers was duly noted by their engineering peers, and a greater bond was formed around organizational values.  This had the fascinating affect of forming a new power base at the company around the moderate parts of both departments, thus leaving the more radical engineers and marketers out of the loop.  This moderate core became the innovation engine, launching successful new projects, whilst radical-moderate collaborations tended to fail miserably.

Such consolidation has been common throughout social movements, with the fear posed by a radical challenger driving those in a dominant group towards their moderate peers.

Power and status are enormous factors in any innovation project, so this provides a nice insight into how that can, and should, be managed to ensure the wider organization thrives.

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