Sometimes, It Takes Volume to Innovate

Forbes has a piece on recent initiatives at AT&T designed to create a quicker innovation cycle within the company. And even though we should all roll our eyes anytime a company starts talking too much about innovation, it’s worth reading to see how they’re backing up the claim.

After all, telecomms are normally thought of as the trolls under the bridge (even if they did build the bridge), toll-taking their pounds of flesh when all we want is to use mobile devices the way all the shiny commercials tell us we should be using them. Basically, we don’t often think of telecomms as the purveyors of awesome things.

In the past few years, AT&T has instituted a couple of programs to encourage and accelerate innovation. One is an interior program to take advantage of the technology ideas of their own employees. It’s something any resource-rich company should have and isn’t too groundbreaking, other than that the program guarantees a greenlight and funding for 12 new projects of that nature a year.

The Foundry program is a bit more interesting. For this program, they developed a fast-pitch process that gives outside partners and wannabe partners from a wide range of backgrounds face-time with actual decision-makers, where within 15 minutes they’ll have pitched their project and received an answer.

It’s a bit like speed-dating. Or that show Shark Tank, except without the social pressures of the former and the artificial drama of the latter.

Doing things that way, independent idea-smiths have been able to get in front of the right people, executives, with their pitch, and AT&T has been able to legitimately consider more than a thousand pitches in three years, while investing (along with its partners) some $100 million in these projects and bringing 29 to market…a large number for an industry that usually moves in terms of epochs.

The man behind these changes is AT&T CTO John Donovan, who explains why he did it by making a distinction between innovation and invention:

What we did was invent. What we didn’t do was innovation…Invention is creating something new. Innovation is where you consummate things with the customer. There was a lot of process and people between the invention and getting it out.

Now, that’s an extremely corporate way to define innovation, but that’s basically what it means. To make something better for people to use.

And, sometimes, it takes a sheer volume of ideas in order to innovate.

Now you can roll your eyes.