Innovation under the covers
There are a number of reasons for what I call "innovation under the covers". First, every firm wants to be viewed as an innovator, so it pays to talk about innovation externally, regardless of what you are actually doing internally. Second, innovation is risky, so rather than make a big, public bet that may fail, executives are often willing to allow innovation to happen, but in a quiet, discrete way in case it doesn't pan out. Third, many people are convinced that innovation will lead to new intellectual property or other artifacts or information that should be protected, so innovation is kept quiet in case it generates interesting and valuable ideas. Fourth, every innovator is convinced that if other firms discover what they are doing, competitors will quickly respond with copycat solutions.
Each of these arguments for secrecy seem valuable, but the reality is that innovation, like information, wants to be free. What appears to be safe and careful approaches actually work in opposition to good innovation. While executives may want to keep innovation quiet to limit damage if innovation fails, the organization reads this as a "sideshow" that the company doesn't have deep confidence in. The more innovation is isolated and hidden, the less involvement, the less engagement and the more skeptical the rest of the organization becomes about innovation. While innovation may occasionally lead to new intellectual property or trade secrets, once a new product or service is launched it will be reverse engineered. There are valid reasons to keep intellectual property, especially patentable concepts under wraps, but with the new first to file methodology there's less pressure.
Don't worry about people stealing your idea
One of my favorite quips about innovation reflects the concern that people may "steal" your idea - that saying goes something like this: "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good you'll need to ram them down their throats." Good ideas - excellent ideas even, are often simply lying around waiting for someone to implement them. What this means is that the best ideas are often so revolutionary that they are rejected by the vast majority of people when they first learn about them. And, given the lethargy of most development processes and the slow decision making endemic in most firms, no firm is going to respond too quickly.
I've argued for quite some time that the real need where innovation is concerned is speed and agility, not isolation and constant review. The ideas, as they say, are out there. Any need or opportunity that you've identified has probably been noticed by someone else. What is it about your innovation methods or processes that ensure you get to the market first, with the right solution, versus your competition? Doing innovation under the covers, secretive and slow, simply means you'll probably miss the market window, and others who are identifying the same needs but who speed to market, regardless of who knows about their innovative idea, will win.
Sunshine is a great disinfectant
Political reformers like to say sunshine is the best disinfectant. What they mean is that open communication and transparent policies lead to decisions that are broadly beneficial to everyone, and closed door, secretive meetings and decisions often lead to surprises and decisions that benefit a few. I think we can take a lot of lessons from the idea of sunshine. Far too often innovators who are kept under the covers surprise their counterparts inside an organization, who immediately resist the ideas because they were unaware or not part of the process. Interestingly, those same ideas that so disrupt internal teams and processes often fail to provide meaningful benefits for actual customers, because they don't address key customer needs. By keeping the process and ideas secret, customers were left out of the equation, and find little of value in the new products and services.
So, in effect, we have the worst of both worlds. Ideas that cause internal disruption because they were created in secret, which make barely a ripple in the market, because they were created in secret. Shouldn't this be the other way round? Shouldn't we seek to disrupt markets with compelling products that our internal teams fully support?
The few, the proud
One other failing of the "under the covers" approach - it limits the number, breadth and depth of ideas you can consider. Many innovation programs have a process for managing ideas you could label the "few and proud" since they only have bandwidth for a few ideas and they are very proud of them. Once again, the under the cover model for innovation imposes limits, limits on the number of ideas that can be considered, limits on the number of concurrent activities, and, with limited external information, limits on the amount of information we have about our ideas. Your secrecy is limiting your ability to innovate, at a time when speed to market is far more important than secrecy.
From top to bottom we can create a rationale for more openness. When you work on incremental ideas to existing products, many of the new features and potential benefits should be relatively obvious to your customers. In fact they've probably asked for them. When you work on truly disruptive ideas, you should be using insights from customers about unmet needs. Your competitors are doing the same things - or ought to be. If your ideas are truly unique, valuable and interesting, you'll struggle to get your internal decision makers to agree, much less have to worry about your ideas being "stolen" by competitors. If your competitors are smart enough to monitor what you do, then beat them with better innovation capability and speed. In many cases, they aren't watching you that closely anyway, and can't respond quickly enough to matter even if they are.