Growing Your Practice

Innovators Beware: Dangerous Intersection Ahead

Where complexity meets wackiness

by Neal Thornberry, Ph.D.

Innovation is not for the faint of heart, as Galileo learned when he said that the Earth revolved around the sun. He was scorned, threatened with death and eventually put under lifetime house arrest.

Innovators are not always welcome guests even within their own organizations, and their challenges are heightened by a dangerous organizational intersection: where Complexity meets Wackiness. The more complex an organization, the more difficult it is for the innovator to figure out where to go with a good idea and how to weave it through the organization to implementation and eventually value creation.

Growing organizations cannot avoid complexity. They add processes and people, divisions and specialists. Since we can now measure almost everything, they often believe if one measurement captured in a report is good, then more are better.

One company, with whom I worked, learned that its sales people were losing a month of selling each year because of the time spent filling out reports required by the finance department. This example of complexity gone awry drove the organization into Wackiness — sacrificing revenues for reports.

Stealth Innovators

There are many other examples of Wackiness getting in the way of innovation – and examples of stealth innovators circumnavigating them. One of my favorites is the tale of Jim Repp, head of Jeep design at the old Daimler Chrysler Corp.

Jim knew that many Jeep lovers spent thousands of dollars upgrading their Wranglers for serious off-roading. This gave him the great idea for a mass-produced Jeep with all the upgrades built in at half the cost. When he shared his idea with marketing, they said there was no market for that type of vehicle and besides, you’re an engineer, not a marketer.

Undeterred, Jim and a small band of innovators I call Innovation Judo masters built a secret prototype. They took it out on the Rubicon Trail in California for off-road trials and invited the senior executives to watch. Jim’s prototype outperformed the other Wranglers and, as crowds gathered around it, the executives saw their enthusiasm. They immediately authorized production of what is now a best-selling icon, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

One company, with whom I worked, learned that its sales people were losing a month of selling each year because of the time spent filling out reports required by the finance department

Fortunately for Chrysler and other companies, there are a few passionate innovators like Jim who won’t let go of their idea no matter what. They’ve developed a special set of skills (I call them Innovation Judo) that allow them to bypass those blocks.

They are:

  • Discipline
  • Leverage
  • Speed
  • Openings
  • Circling
  • Unbalancing
  • Redirection

The Jim Repp story illustrates the application of several of these principles. The discipline to plan for building a secret prototype; leverage in getting senior executives to support his idea; utilizing the opening at the Rubicon Trail; and then using the surprise (a tactic of unbalancing) of a Jeep that looked like all the other jeeps on the trail but outperformed them.

Since it takes so long to correct the dangers at the Complexity/Wackiness intersection, identifying and supporting a few Innovation Judo Masters can go a long way in overcoming some of the most difficult barriers to innovation.





About Neal Thornberry, Ph.D.
Neal Thornberry, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of IMSTRAT, LLC a consulting firm that specializes in helping private and public sector organizations develop innovation strategies. He serves as the faculty director for innovation initiatives at the Center for Executive Education at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Thornberry, author of “Innovation Judo:Disarming Roadblocks & Blockheads on the Path to Creativity” (, holds a doctorate in organizational psychology and specializes in innovation, corporate entrepreneurship, leadership and organizational transformation. A respected thought leader in innovation, Thornberry is a highly sought-after international speaker and consultant.