Politics is what happens when two or more people need to make one decision.

Innovation lives in the intersection of “I have a great idea!” and n*(n-1)/2 – the number of pairs in a group of n people. It’s why “I have a great idea” is as far as most ideas get, and why the politics of innovation doesn’t scale very well.

Imagine you have a great idea, or bump into one and like it. You think the idea should have a happy home in the organization you work in.

What comes next?

Well, you could gripe to your buddies over lunch (or Zoom), “You know what they oughta do?” The griping strategy wins you several points: Your buddies will find you tiresome, you won’t persuade anyone, and if you do persuade anyone they won’t be a member of the legendary, all-powerful group known as “They” – the ones who oughta do whatever you’re proposing.

You could, as an alternative, send an anonymous letter … yes, letter; in theory there’s such a thing as an anonymous email but I wouldn’t count on it … an anonymous letter, I say, to the CEO or other highly placed executive who is part of the all-powerful “They,” explaining the idea.

This approach works even better than griping to your buddies, because the only person or people who will find you tiresome won’t know who you are. You still won’t persuade anyone, but netted against buddy-griping you’re still ahead.


In any organization … in any group of people with more than one member … innovation attempts are inherently political. Within the group will be a subset that has to agree the innovation is worth pursuing. And right about here is where a lot of recommended approaches to innovation fail.

That’s because the moment an idea escapes your head and wanders off into the wild, it mutates: Every person in the subset who encounters it – the decision-makers – will, advertently or inadvertently, adjust it so it’s in tune with their expertise, personal experience, perceptions, mental models, and blind spots. And each one will adjust it differently.

For your idea to survive it will have to strike a difficult balance. It will have to resemble how things are now closely enough that each decision-maker can readily connect the dots to what you’re suggesting.

And, it will have to be different enough to get their attention.

And so, each decision-maker will alter the idea from what you originally had in mind in ways that range from trivial to important.

Then, each pair of decision-makers will have to reconcile the mutated versions of the idea that are in their heads, resulting in [n*(n-1)/2]/2 post-reconciliation versions.

Rinse and repeat. After a few iterations it’s possible your idea will still be recognizable, and that the decision-makers will decide to move forward on it. But by that point you’ll have lost all influence over how it evolves.

The process isn’t, of course, as well-organized as all this. It’s less of a flow chart and more a bunch of scattered conversations. I’m just trying to distill the essence of why and how ideas evolve.

Bob’s last word: Most large organizations have put proposal processes in place to try to make innovation more organized. These processes help everyone with worthwhile ideas understand what topics have to be covered to make the idea worth evaluating.

But no matter how well-written a proposal is, human beings will still apply a remarkable level of ingenuity in finding ways to misunderstand what they’re reading.

Which is why, if you have an idea you want to propose, your first step should be to think it through according to the proposal process guidelines, but your second step should be to find one decision-maker … just one … to propose it to first.

That will maximize the chance that your idea will survive the meatgrinder of proposal evaluation intact, minimizing the extent to which the politics of innovation shape-shifts it into a form even you, its originator, won’t recognize.

Bob’s sales pitch: In CIO’s upcoming Future of Work Summit I debate Isaac Sacolick on the business readiness of machine learning, with IDG’s Editor in Chief, Eric Knorr moderating the back-and-forth. The Summit takes place February 15th through February 17th, and looks to have a lot of valuable sessions. Our debate is scheduled for Wednesday, February 16th, at 2:50pm CST. Mark your calendar.