Going Underground to Get Things Done
Have you ever presented a brilliant new idea to your boss, only to be told, "No, it'll never work," or "Sorry, too expensive"?
You're disappointed, but not dissuaded. You're still convinced that your organization would benefit from your idea, and you're determined to prove it.
This is where stealth innovation can be useful: it allows you to explore the feasibility of an idea before you float it to the people "upstairs." But working on a project without the "green light" from your boss can have serious risks, too.
In this article, we'll explore how you can use stealth innovation responsibly and ethically. Also, we'll discuss what you can do if you believe that one of your team members is operating "under the radar."
What Is Stealth Innovation?
Stealth innovation is the practice of working on a project in secret, before you reveal it to a wider audience. It is often used by tech startups, who use it to protect their intellectual property, and to create a "buzz" around their products.
But stealth innovation can also occur within an organization. In these cases, staff work behind the scenes on internal projects, but without explicit permission. They assess the viability of an idea, develop and test prototypes, and identify supporters from across the business, before "officially" putting the concept forward.
Stealth innovation within an organization is controversial. Some consider it to be dishonest or potentially toxic, or feel that innovation is best tackled openly, in a culture of collaboration.
And, at its most extreme, stealth innovation can be truly unethical. For example, siphoning resources from other departments, or working for personal gain at the company's expense.
Such activities may be perceived as a breach of trust, and could result in disciplinary action or even dismissal. So, it's crucial to be aware of the pitfalls and, ideally, to avoid working in this way wherever possible.
Why Use Stealth Innovation?
Many organizations do empower their staff to innovate. Some actively encourage "extracurricular" projects – Google's "20 Percent Time" is one famous example.
But, where new ideas aren't so readily accepted, stealth innovation can buy you time to research and develop your concept, and to build a strong case for taking it forward. This can put you in a far better position when you present your idea, and it may enable you to overcome potential objections before they are raised.
This is important, because you may only get one chance to make your idea a reality. Once an idea is rejected, your chances of changing the decision-makers' minds are diminished. They may tend to focus on evidence that supports their decision, and to overlook the evidence against it (this is known as "confirmation bias").
Decision-makers in your organization may have irrefutable operational or strategic reasons for turning down your idea. If so, accept their decision, learn from their feedback, and go "back to the drawing board!"
Responsible Stealth Innovation
If you do embark on a stealth project, it's vital to act in a responsible and ethical way. This will mitigate the risks and maximize your chances of success. So, be sure to:
- Focus on your organization's strategic goals. Think about how your idea aligns with your company's existing projects and activities. An idea that only furthers your own interests, or those of your team, will likely lack credibility.
Canvass opinion. You may not want to seek buy-in from decision-makers straight away. But you can ask people in your network – managers from different departments, for example – for advice and insight before you commit yourself.
You may even gain tacit approval for your idea, but make sure that you are upfront about your intentions, and that your contacts know exactly what they're "signing up" to.
Plan ahead. Consider how you will find the time and funds you need for your project. Unauthorized use of company resources is unethical and potentially illegal, and it will reflect badly on you and your idea. You may need to work on your project in your own time, so that you don't fall behind with your day-to-day responsibilities.
Our article, Managing Conflicting Priorities, offers tips and strategies on how to handle competing demands effectively.
- Assess and demonstrate the value of your idea. This may involve running tests and surveys, gathering evidence, or developing a prototype. Tools like Design Thinking and The Build-Measure-Learn Feedback Loop can be useful here.
- Develop your communication, stakeholder management, and negotiation skills. People will more likely support your idea if you can demonstrate that you fully understand its implications for your organization, and how it will work in practice. You may also be asked to justify your stealthy approach, and you'll need to be diplomatic and persuasive to do so.
- Present your idea as soon as possible. Your idea needs strong evidence to support it, but decision-makers may feel that they've been "hoodwinked" if you've taken too long to come forward.
Managing Stealth Innovation in Your Team
As a manager, suspecting that one of your team is working on a "secret" project can be jarring. It may feel like a betrayal, especially if you encourage an open, honest and collaborative working environment.
The first step toward dealing with it is to ask simple, direct questions, such as, "What are you working on at the moment?" or, "I've noticed that you've been working late a lot recently, can I ask why?"
If your suspicions are confirmed, your first instinct may be to immediately shut down the project. And if the behavior is reckless or risky, you may consider disciplinary action.
Reactions like these are understandable, and may well be justified. But, ask yourself why he or she feels the need to work in this way.
His reasons might be legitimate. For example, if senior decision-makers are known to dismiss ideas that are presented without supporting evidence. Or, if you yourself are unwilling to accept ideas from your team members.
If his reasons are sound, and you're satisfied that the project has promise, offer support and encouragement. Provide resources, advice and time to enable him to work on the project, but ask for regular updates or progress reports. Use your judgment about whether to make senior managers aware of the situation.
You might discover that your colleague is working "undercover" for personal reasons. For example, she may fear looking foolish if her idea is rejected or criticized, or she may simply dislike attention and recognition. If the problem is a lack of confidence, help her to address it, perhaps with coaching or mentoring.
Finally, consider whether or not your organization encourages innovation at this level. It may be beyond your remit to instigate a company-wide culture change, but you can aim to build a more supportive environment for your team, to encourage innovation. Our article, Practical Innovation, has strategies for doing this.
If your team members are reluctant to offer ideas, an anonymous "ideas jar" can generate good results. Crawford's Slip Writing Method can also encourage greater participation in brainstorming sessions.
Stealth innovation is the practice of developing a project or idea in secret. This can enable you to gather support, to test the idea, or to prove a business case, which may increase the chances of an idea being accepted.
However, some organizations may frown upon this approach, and you boss may even consider it to be unethical or underhand, and this can damage your career prospects.
If you do decide to work in secret, be clear why you're doing so, and be prepared to justify your actions. Developing your communication, stakeholder management and negotiation skills will help you to get your ideas heard, whether or not you choose "stealth mode."
As a manager, if you believe that someone is working "under the radar," don't rush to judgment. Instead, find out why, and work toward creating a supportive and inclusive environment, where innovative and potentially beneficial ideas are discussed openly.