Stealthstorming: Getting innovation into your company under the radar

Stealth innovation is creeping into some of the world's biggest companies - employees with good ideas are sneaking them into their organisations under the radar.

So you’ve got a great idea for a new product or service, but you suspect the risk-averse bosses won’t go for it. Do you rock up to management anyway and risk being turned away, and your idea left to languish? Or do you shrug, tuck the idea in a drawer and forget all about it? There is a third option, says management guru Paddy Miller: Stealth Innovation.

Miller, who is professor of management at the acclaimed IESE Business School in Barcelona, says stealth innovation is about making innovation happen under the radar.

“It’s stealthstorming; guerrilla warfare waged with ideas; radical thinking sneaking into an organisation under the corporate defences - to make it happen. It's about asking for forgiveness, rather than seeking permission,” Miller says.

“If you think something is good for the company, you have to understand the politics, you have to get traction on your ideas and build up stakeholders before you do the PowerPoint presentation. If you have all this in place, you’ve got a much better chance of making your case.”

Successful stealth innovators follow some simple, if counter-intuitive, rules when they make innovation happen, Miller says. "They embrace organisational politics; they seek mandates from the middle; they don’t think art is the answer; they are skeptical of the spectacular; and sometimes, they deliberately avoid any mention of the word innovation.”

Take Jordan Cohen, formerly an HR manager for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in New York. He had an idea for a productivity initiative that would see Pfizer’s highly skilled (and highly paid) employees outsourcing the more routine elements of their jobs - thus freeing them up to focus on more important tasks.

Cohen knew the idea would work. He also knew it was too radical to be acceptable to senior executives.

So he went under the radar, developing the service for more than a year, accumulating evidence and gaining users and allies. Only then did he put his idea on to the CEO’s desk, where he found (surprise, surprise) almost total support for the new project.

Cohen was appointed to head up the execution of the new organisation, pfizerWorks, throughout the company and it became so popular that in an internal survey in 2011 pfizerWorks was voted Pfizer’s best service offering – even though individual divisions had to pay for it from their own budgets.

“Stealthstorming, is about building up a ‘fan base’ for your idea, helping you to avoid the risks of going straight to the top with your initiative,” Miller says.

“Top-level managers are exposed to lots of untested ideas, and routinely reject the more innovative ones because they seem too risky or intangible. And even if you do gain the support of a senior sponsor, the complicated game of thrones taking place at the top can mean that your project is suddenly sidelined or is taken hostage in a political in-fight.”

Paddy Miller is professor of management at IESE Business School in Barcelona. He is co-author of Innovation as Usual, published by Harvard Business Press in 2013. Professor Miller is ‘visiting fellow’ at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) and will be in New Zealand in early December to deliver his two-day ‘Innovation Architect’ programme.