Innovation Must Overcome the Corporate Immune System

An old friend used to write on his easel the words “Innovate, Emigrate or Evaporate .”  It was his shorthand way of saying that to compete
May 20, 2010

An old friend used to write on his easel the words “Innovate, Emigrate or Evaporate.”  It was his shorthand way of saying that to compete in a globalized market, innovation was essential.  The other alternatives were to emigrate – to somewhere where innovation was welcomed, or to simply cease to exist – evaporate.


Surely there are no obstacles to innovation strong enough to subdue this proven path to success.  Or are there?  Do not underestimate the desire of human nature to maintain the status quo.  It is this false feeling of security with the status quo – no change, and thus no innovation – that is so perilous.  It lulls people into an unrealized, but potentially fatal downward spiral.


The Immune System


Every organism has some kind of immune system to protect it from invaders. What is a corporate organization if not an organism.  In the human body, the immune system creates anti-bodies or anti-viruses or white blood cells to defeat invasions that put it in danger.  Such it is with corporate “bodies.”


The corporate immune system is not malicious or evil in nature. It is simply trying to protect the status quo.  To say it another way, it is trying to “preserve/protect the past.”  As the corporation strives to compete in the highly competitive current environment, part of it is always trying to “perfect the present,” – to become better and better at what it is currently doing.  This too is a form of the corporate immune response.


Resources Are Limited


Resources only come in three forms:  Time, Talent and Money (or as a friend reminds me, to keep them all T’s – “Treasure.”  Which ever words you use, time is perishable and once misspent, it is gone.  Talent is usually tasked to preserving/protecting the past and perfecting the present, in the forms or problem solving and “firefighting.”  Money is spent on these time-tested old or aging products, loyal customers and staid markets.  Precious few resources are left for forward-looking innovation.  And all of this is done with the best of intentions.


This is a problem that occurs insidiously at first, and only later, becomes critical.  When all of the resources of the corporation are devoted to “preserving/protecting the past” and “perfecting the present,” none or very few are left to “find the future.”  Innovation is the future, and left unchanged, corporate culture (another name for the immune system) will starve the future or resources.


Life Cycles Are Inevitable


The well-known product life cycle curve slopes gently upward from conception to growth, and then levels off at maturity, just before dipping into decline.  The secret of long-term success is to have a series of life cycle curves, one after another after another, each of which is started by and built around a new innovation.  Some cycles curves might grow taller (larger) or last longer than others, but the natural progression is destined to be the same.  Conception, growth, maturity, and then the inevitable decline, will be the stages of every product.


If the corporate immune system kicks in and spends resources on preserving the past or even on perfecting the present, few (or none) will remain for finding the future.  And thus few (or no) new life cycles will be conceived.  When this happens, the company itself is characterized by the life cycle curve as well.  It will have launched itself from growth to maturity, and staying there too long, into decline, caused by too few new innovations to generate growth. 


A Simple Equation Forewarns Us


I have often described this condition with an equation:  PP*2≠FF. It simply means: Preserving the Past (PP) and Perfecting the Present (PP) does not equal Finding the Future (FF).  The immune system’s struggle to sustain the status quo will have successfully killed off innovation (and with it, all those in the organization who were its advocates).  The death of the company is usually not far behind.


Don’t let this happen in your organization.  Peter F. Drucker often reminded us that the manager’s primary responsibility was “the allocation of the best resources to the greatest opportunities- and not to fixing problems born of the past.”  You have been forewarned.  The rest is up to you – as is your future.


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John L. Mariotti is President and CEO of The Enterprise Group. He was President of Huffy Bicycles, Group President of Rubbermaid Office Products Group, and now serves as a Director on several corporate boards. He has written eight business books. His electronic newsletter THE ENTERPRISE is published weekly. His Web site is