Encourage innovation: from skunkworks to silos (and back)

If you’re very lucky, right now somebody on your marketing team has spotted an opportunity that doesn’t fit within the boundaries of established procedure, protocol, and budget. They’re cooking up something wholly new and largely unauthorized in the skunkworks. They probably don’t have sponsorship, administrative support, or even a formal budget, but they’re trying to get something new and exciting started.

In short, they’re doing something they’re not supposed to do. By going out on their own and breaking every rule in the book, they’re creating an organizational silo, and we all know those are bad. Or do we?

The way strategists and consultants rail against organizational silos, you would think it should be a capital offense to ever stray outside of established procedure, hierarchy, and data collection. But there is a very real consequence to relying on established procedure and doing things the way they’ve always been done: at best, you only realize average results.

To put it in Mad Men terms, Lou Avery hates silos and shuts them down whenever possible. But by quashing innovation, Lou Avery will never redefine an industry the way Don Draper and company can. High flyers need room to roam, but sooner or later they must come back to Earth—or, at least, establish clear lines of communication with Mission Control.

Making this transition requires finesse. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your marketing innovations before they calcify into a dreaded silo.

No fear

Stop fearing the silo. Instead, learn to embrace the positives of a rogue endeavor.

Every time a new communication channel emerges, pioneers have had to invent a new approach on the fly. It happened with email, as brands struggled to accept that almost everything they knew about direct mail didn’t apply to the new medium. Years later, in social media, a few brave marketers boldly strutted out onto Twitter and learned in short order that listening was even more important than speaking. And it will keep happening when someone on your team takes a gamble, sets up a downtown pop-up store, and suddenly you’ve got the challenges and rewards of guerrilla marketing on your plate. Again, if you’re lucky.

Leeann Leahy, president of The VIA Agency, loves a good skunkworks project because of the freedom it affords her professionals. Unencumbered by the normal rules, regulations, and habitual second-guessing, her people do some of their best work. “They’re given more freedom to grow because things are allowed to flourish,” she says. “We’re doing a project now that is a bit of a test for the client. It’s wonderful because there’s no time to waste, and there aren’t enough people to question everything out of existence.”

Know when it’s closing time

In the early going, pioneers and visionaries shake things up and produce welcome innovations. Out of the skunkworks emerge heroes! They are feted and promoted, they take fabulous vacations, and are invited to give TED talks. But then the reckoning comes. The new team is disorganized. They can’t track spending and revenue with precision and clarity. When team members leave, it’s hard to replace them because nobody knows exactly what the team has lost.

In short, the superstars have created a silo. Customers are actually better than managers at spotting the problem. “You have to look at the customer experience in those new channels,” says Wilson Raj, global director of customer intelligence at SAS.

Let consistency be the guide. When the customer’s experience with a brand is completely unrecognizable between channels, the innovators may be doing more harm than good.

Leahy says there are two easy ways to spot when an innovative team is about to become a troubled silo: when the success has become so popular that everybody wants to join in on the fun, or when the enthusiasm of the innovators starts to visibly flag. “You can tell when the excitement’s lost and the core team needs to get on with their lives,” she says.

Have an exit strategy

Stamping out innovation isn’t the answer to the silo challenge. Knowing how to maximize the value of an underground movement is.

Be ready to deliver a carrot-and-stick message to the pioneers. Give them a tacit blessing and the support they need to roam, but clearly communicate the understanding that, sooner or later, they will be held to the same standards of process, reporting, and accountability as the rest of the organization—even if the tools to measure their performance haven’t been invented yet.

Don’t let pride stand in the way of applying the innovator’s victories to the broader brand experience. Even a failed endeavor can spur significant and positive change. “In GM’s grand experiment with Saturn, Saturn had the right idea—they didn’t have 10 billion upholstery options causing customer paralysis,” Raj says. “Look at today’s GM: they are embracing the Saturn concept. They have reduced the number of models, the number of options, and have totally simplified their pricing.”

Finally, understand that innovation is a constant process, not a one-time event. Building more innovation and rule-breaking into the established routine can pay ongoing dividends. “We would like to see more clients understand that the thing they fell in love with was more free and energized, and that they have to maintain that energy as it becomes a part of the everyday course of business,” Leahy says.

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.