I started this post several weeks ago, but the nature and texture of my comments have been rapidly evolving. First, let me use Wikipedia to define the Mandarin as a "senior civil servant" and then make it my own by claiming it as the Mandarin at a BigCo -- a Mandarin is your typical BigCo executive/manager; not a lifer perhaps, but someone who's happy to be at a big company.
A senior civil servant and a BigCo manager have much in common -- they operate within a political environment, they strive for consensus, they likely seek to minimize risk/exposure/bad outcomes. Their personal mission is to operate and survive through multiple regimes, various re-orgs, latest and greatest management priorities and strategic "visions", etc. I have a strong suspicion that the Mandarin's opinion and behavior is shaped by those around him (or her); the Mandarin's survival is largely a function of how well he fits into the BigCo system. 99 times out of 100, doing the "safe" thing is the right thing, for it will lead to lower likelihood of trouble by rubbing the system the wrong way. I'll demonstrate my point rhetorically: How many mavericks at BigCos stick around? How many thrive? How many are embraced by the organization? Very, very, very few. QED.
So where the heck am I going with all this?
The Mandarin lacks passion. The Mandarin lacks focused energy. The Mandarin is outstanding at executing his/her role, within a larger system. The Mandarin optimizes and makes considered decisions. It's a job, not an adventure, dammit. The Mandarin says: "If I wanted an adventure, I'd join a startup." EXACTLY. The Mandarin isn't an /owner/ of something; they're a temporary caretaker. Heck, how else could they switch jobs every 12-18 months? Can you imagine parents switching kids every 12-18 months? You can only switch gigs by being a temporary caretaker. Sure, you'll do your best, but switching time is always just around the corner.
Again, where am I going?
Initially, my post was going to say that when in the process of innovation you run into a Mandarin, look out. The Mandarin views your invention as merely one of hundreds of new product opportunities. And most of them will fail (the Mandarin has plenty of experience proving his point). So I was going to advise that you must get around the Mandarin, find a champion, find a kindred spirit that has passion for your invention. Find someone who wants to /own/ it with you and make it happen!
Then, I realized that while that's good advice, most of today's organizations are staffed with Mandarins. In some (most?) cases, behind the first Mandarin is a swarm of more of them. They're not evil or bad people, they just don't operate like we do. They've had passion and risk-taking drilled out of them. Like a cancer or canker sore. Budgets. Staff levels. Locked down. Exception spending requires CEO approval. Work the plan. Find the learnings and develop a repeatable process. Don't shake the boat.
Very few Mandarins ever got fired for doing what they said they were going to do; the renegades DID get fired (or managed out) for on-the-fly changes that didn't pay off. And a successful on-the-fly change is generally viewed as a "lucky" thing; good that it worked out, but please don't try that again. Go through the process...
So where does that leave the aspiring innovator? I think it leaves the inspiring innovator in a potentially unique, albeit precarious position. If the new market insight / new invention can only be brought to market by a licensee, then much creativity and persistence must be applied against finding the right licensee and getting them to YES. The odds are more daunting than they should be, but by no means are they insurmountable. There are champions and renegades inside BigCos; they need to be pursued and found. However, if the product can be cost-effectively launched, and market demand validated, there may be a way to appropriate more value to the inventor and investors through creative operating entity structures.
More to come on that topic in a future post...