I recently spoke to a friend of mine who works for a large corporation. He works for an IT group who’s been tasked to help turn around a struggling business unit, as a meaningful exercise around technology- driven Innovation and cross-functional collaboration to produce efficiencies within the business unit and help drive new revenues that the executive sponsor could promote as a meaningful contribution that IT made to the business.

The problems he had were the following

A) There were no clear examples around how to drive effective change, outside of design-based firms focused on product development or strictly focused on ideation and creative exercises in a workshop style format. The word “Innovation” itself got a bunch of eye rolls, and he’s relatively low on the totem pole. He felt the word had no place in what he was trying to do, and was more of a marketing term the sponsor put on the project vs focusing on the meaningful outcomes he knew he needed to hit.

B) There was no indication the problem was even possible to solve, as the team was traditionally tasked with just keeping the IT services maintained and not staffed or tasked with people that are entrepreneurial nor had the training or experience driving large scale change with minimal budget or authority, as this fell under “pet project” status within his larger IT org.

C) Apathy and Resignation, his team was visibility depressed and down trodden after years and years of politics and a lack of clear direction in the face of all the reasons why change isn’t possible. Those in the roles to help drive change had too much apathy to overcome, in order to make the initiative successful and others resigned themselves to the status quo armed with all the reasons why change would be both difficult and unlikely to succeed. Others still, had built careers on learning the rules and reasons why things should stay the way they are so any mention of risk or change brought about 100’s of roadblocks and line by line on why even minor changes not done in just the right way would be unsustainable

The thing is that any corporation this size is going to have these issues, no matter who you are or what you do. Eventually change becomes more difficult, and making the things happen you know should become harder and harder to do. Let’s call it Corporate Arthritis, where risky and adventurous moves become more painful the older and larger the company gets.

Yet, he had a mission and felt like he was between a rock and a hard place. Many people I know face this cross road at some point in their career, and either quit to start their own company, tired of how hard it is to make a difference in a big company, or stay there and accept defeat with very few navigating the corporate sphere to make something meaningful occur at a broad cross-functional level.

In my own career, I’ve never seen change come easy. It took getting up every day, and knowing I’d get spit at (metaphorically) and face a lot of people disbelieving what I was saying was possible, and no clear path or permission to make a difference. Sometimes I failed to get traction, and when I did it always cost me something. Yet, some battles are worth fighting so you can help make a dent in the war corporations have to stay agile and responsive to the market place.

Based on what I saw work at other companies, with employees like my friend facing similar odds, I proposed he try the following tactics to help combat the corporate arthritis he was dealing with.

A) Focus on the outcome and not the technology / means

Executives at any level typically have ten or so objectives they have to hit for the year that are tied to a hard number or measurement typically. Few if any are going to care about the specific means to drive that success, but care instead about hitting those numbers. If you go in talking about mobile devices vs revenue growth or efficiency, you’ll have a much harder time convincing a business unit on the other side of the company to take you seriously.

Instead, focus on what is meaningful to that other function and stage what you’re talking about in terms they care about. Sounds simple, but is often missed when it comes to cross-functional collaboration. It may be hard to tie what your group does to the value proposition of a team on the other side of your company, but having that “rosetta stone” starts with informational interviews and discussing with people in a semi informal way what makes them tick. Understand your audience, and treat your team like a start-up. If the customer doesn’t buy their product, it’s not their fault – it’s yours.

B) Re-consider what victory looked like and build a tangible story to support it.

All because the executive handed down a hard number and states you should hit that, there’s wiggle room there because they don’t care about the number but instead the bigger story around what that number represents. If an automotive car company says “we need to sell 1,000,000 new trucks”, it could be that they felt selling a million new trucks was the best way to hit a revenue target. Could there be another way to hit that revenue number though, by selling 750,000 trucks with different promotional campaigns than the ones the executives had in mind when they ran the numbers?

It doesn’t hurt to understand what KPIs or metrics you’ve been handed represent, and have a discussion around other ways you could try and achieve that. At the end of the day, if you feel like you’re being set up to fail then don’t play the victim card. Instead, understand what they’re really going after and find a tangible way to be successful while hitting the target.

C) Grow a thick skin

Change is hard and driving new revenue growth doesn’t come without challenges in any company. You have rules, regulations, and middle managers that will fight you tooth and nail either to protect their turf, or project some level of jadedness on you. The unfortunate thing is that those individuals may feel like they’re helping you by throwing up resistance, or not even realize what they’re doing is a negative thing. Or perhaps, they just don’t like you for whatever reason. I was once on a conference call sharing a new initiative with a number of executives in the room and several folks from the IT group I worked for on the phone, when all off a sudden someone on the phone started saying “yea, Dan Maycock is talking, this guy is totally full of #$(*, yea I know….yea, I agree, who does he think he is?”.

Everyone in the room went silent, and the moderator fumbled to get that individual on the phone as he obviously didn’t know he was unmuted. I quickly had to shake it off, and kept going. I never found out what that person had against me, but it didn’t matter. Sometimes making the biggest changes causes the biggest problems, but the corporate immune system is a very real thing and will fight change and risk in many different forms. The key is to keep pushing to drive that revenue or efficiency despite that.

C) It’s all about the (right) data.

The big thing these days is data, and information and the power to look at tons of data and build a meaningful story. However, there is a ton of useless and meaningless data out there as well, and not ever byte of data out there is useful. Having the right data means knowing ahead of time what story you want the data to tell, and ensure you’re spending the right amount of time understanding data mining and how building a solid hypothesis works. Having a little useful data is far more meaningful than having tons of meaningless data, and you don’t need to be a data scientist to construct a regression model or find correlations in the data you have in front of you. It just takes a little time educating yourself on how the right data can help you build an objective business case for those less likely to follow your lead.

At the end of the day, he knew he’d have to head back into the fray and work to rally the troops and build a solid plan of attack. Every employee and executive fights a battle with the corporate immune system when it comes to doing things differently, but it’s a battle worth fighting. Real change never comes easy, and making sure to say I didn’t have a silver bullet, there’s certainly ways to fight the battle smarter and “win the battle before you fight” as Sun Tzu would say. There’s no book or system that’s guaranteed to work, but having the encouragement and support of people outside your situation, providing insights to combat your tunnel vision and help you rise from the jadedness and apathy can go a long way in helping turn best practices into meaningful outcomes. You won’t always win the battles, but eventually you’ll start to make a real difference in the war and that, people inside and outside the company will begin to take note of and it’ll become easier over time because you’ll have the reputation and trust of folks higher up the ladder helping drive changes more effectively (plus the experience that comes from being a battle hardened office warrior).

Dan Maycock is the author of “Building The Expo”, which shares best practices on leveraging #Innovation in meaningful ways and saving the concept from it’s overused but underutilized past. The book has first hand stories, and best practices from Dan’s years of experience working with Fortune 1000 companies dealing with emerging technology adoption in an increasingly dynamic business environment. You can purchase the book at Amazon.com or learn more about Dan at http://www.transform.digital

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