Don't Let 'Corporate Antibodies' Kill Your Best Ideas, Warns Ex-HP Exec

Phil McKinneyPhil McKinney

Photo: HP

No matter how well you do your job, your career will stall if you don’t generate great ideas and turn them into successful projects.One myth in the tech industry is that innovation is only for startups. But if you have a great idea, you don’t have to leave a good job — even at a big, stuffy corporation — to launch it.

“There are entrepreneurs who work for large companies,” says Phil McKinney, former vice president and CTO of HP’s $40 billion Personal Systems Group. 

McKinney left HP in December.

During his nine years there, he started a group called the Innovation Program Office — cutely nicknamed IPO. It sought out employees’ ideas to launch them in-house so people wouldn’t leave for startups.

The outspoken McKinney is a cult figure at HP between IPO and his Killer Innovations podcast, which attracts 30,000 listeners. He also just published the book Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions that Spark Game-Changing Innovation

Business Insider spoke to McKinney to find out how employees at large companies can get their ideas into action and grow their careers.

1. Beware the corporate antibodies: “The frustration employees feel is because they run headlong into the corporate antibodies,” he quips. “Corporate antibodies aren’t just obstructionists (though some are). You need to understand why they are pushing back.” For instance, some of them are “ego antibodies” which means “they view themselves as the idea person. You pitching an idea is threatening to them,” McKinney says.

Deal with an ego antibody by coming to that person with a rough draft and taking whatever feedback the person gives you — verbatim — and adding it to your presentation. Credit the person generously. This makes the person feel ownership of the idea.

McKinney names several other types of antibodies in his book, such as the naysayers who automatically veto everything. These folks are afraid of change and you work with them by making them more afraid of not-changing. You point out why your idea will beat your competitors.

2. Perform “the bar room test” on your idea. “Go to your local pub. Go to the bar and order a drink. Then pick three random people, introduce yourself and, assuming the person is not blotto drunk, give them the three-minute pitch. Tell them the problem you want to solve.”

If your bar buddies are interested, you’ve got a good idea. If not, either your idea isn’t great, your presentations isn’t — or both.

3. Practice “strategic story telling.” Most people’s biggest problem is that “they don’t know how to do the pitch. They are enthralled with speeds and deeds,” he says. A good pitch tells an emotional story. Think of it like pitching a “Hollywood movie” where the business problem is the villain and your idea is the hero.

4. Don’t fight the “rule of 18”: “Any senior executive inside an organisation can suffer 18 months of pain. But if that idea isn’t a booming success within 18 months, it gets killed,” he warns. It is best to pitch ideas  that should work within 18 months so you can build some cred. But if your idea will take longer than 18 months to mature, you’ll need to teach your executives to be patient. For that you will need a mentor and a champion.

5. Don’t expect your boss to be your idea mentor. When finding a mentor, you probably need to look outside your direct chain of command. “If you find an executive who’s passionate about the area you are working on they tend to be very receptive — unless the guy’s a jerk,” he says. These folks will be willing to have coffee with you. If they like your idea, they’ll advise you and give “air cover” he says. “In some cases I actually gave budget dollars.”

Find these folks by looking for execs talking about the idea your area covers — maybe they are blogging about it or chatting on LinkedIn groups. Maybe they are working on other, similar projects.

6. Be prepared to work, fail, and work some more. “The challenge for a lot of people is that they think the idea is fully formed,” he says. But chances are some at least some of it will need work. “So fix it and stick it out again. Most people want the fun, the glory and the press coverage,” he says. But if the first time you run into a roadblock you walk away, you’ll never succeed. “Innovation is a skill you can learn. It’s not magic. It’s not a special gift from God. It’s just plain hard work.”

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