Book review–Kill the Company

I seem to be on the mailing list for book publishers wanting people to read and review new business tomes – that’s not such a bad thing – I get a heap of literature and a great way to expand my library. The most recent review copy I was sent was Kill the Company by Lisa Bodell. Bodell is CEO of futurethink a global innovation and research firm. Kill the Company takes the models and learnings from her work with organizations large and small, and packages them into a workbook from which the organization can find ways to lay the groundwork for innovation.

In a former life I spent time consulting with companies on Design (capitalization intentional) – not product design but more about envisaging what the future looked like and then parsing that in terms of their organization – in this way Design (as opposed to design) enables a company to ideate its products, its services, the way it operates and in fact everything about itself to meet the needs of society into the future. To borrow a phrase it allows them to skate to where the puck is going, rather than where it is now.

Given me previous history, and the fact I spend much of my life now looking at organizations that are either being disrupted, or alternatively trying to disrupt, I always enjoy reading about attempts to foster innovation within an organization. In the microcosm where I focus currently, technology companies, there is much talk about how vendors can “disrupt themselves”. The idea being that disruption is going to occur in the short to mid term anyway, existing players are better off to create this disruption themselves than to have it thrust open them by others.

In Kill the Company, Bodell approaches innovation in a refreshing way. instead of asking people to consider the question “How can we beat the competition”?” she suggests they instead ask “How can the competition beat us?”, that’s an indirect way of stepping back from the confines of the current paradigm and envisaging what the future looks like – I’d suggest it’s what blacksmiths should have done at the creation of the Ford Motor Company, or more recently, what Sony et al should have done when Apple rolled out iTunes.

Innovation, says Bodell, doesn’t come from a start point of “innovation”. Rather the organization should begin by “killing the things that hold them back in the first place”. Bodell does this with her “Killer Innovation Toolkit” a process that aims to throw away rules, processes and guidelines and to replace them with a focus on subtraction, simplification and streamlining – which then fosters a culture where change can be introduced incrementally.

I love the premise of the book – I agree that simply getting people in a room and asking them to innovate, is destined to failure in an organization that is full of structure and process. rather innovation is a product of culture, of open-mindedness, of simplicity and preparedness to take risks.

This however is the problem with the book, and more broadly with innovation programs. It’s struck me time and time again that the very companies who need to innovate, and who often spend vast sums on innovation programs, are the very organizations that are so process bound that innovation cannot occur. While more simple, flat, pragmatic and experimental organizations run away with the bulk of new opportunities.

For Kill the Company to succeed then, it needs to be embraced at the highest levels – innovation simply cannot occur (and this is a point that Bodell makes herself in the book) unless the C-suite embraces all that is required – gives free rein to people, trusts its employees and looks to remove as much process and complexity as possible.

Kill the Company is an interesting read, and gives much food for thought to those trying to innovate within organizations – I just so hope those who are in industries currently or soon to be disrupted ead this book, and more importantly think about what it really means for their organization.

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