November 17, 2020

What Dominic Cummings’ failure teaches us about corporate innovation

Cummings understood the first rule of change management: get top level buy-in, but forgot the second: find allies.

Maija Palmer

5 min read

The psychodrama of Boris Johnson suddenly firing his chief advisor Dominic Cummings gripped the UK at the end of last week. Many speculated on what this might mean for Brexit talks, or whether it would result in more harmonious relations between the UK prime minister and the rest of his party.

But for me, it also seemed a classic case of an attempt at corporate innovation handled poorly — in this case the “corporation” being UK government. We’ve seen this same story play out a number of times before — albeit a little less publicly — in big companies across the world.

Cummings is a noted tech enthusiast whose (somewhat rambling) blogs extol the virtues of AI and lunar exploration. After disrupting the status quo with his winning pro-Brexit campaign he was brought in — much like a successful startup founder — to shake up government, famously declaring that he wanted to fill the civil service with “weirdos and misfits” who thought differently.


Cummings had repeatedly criticised the UK’s civil service for being slow and ineffectual and, like any keen, newly-appointed head of innovation, had plans to bring in a lot of techniques borrowed straight from Silicon Valley, including a Nasa-style control room streaming in real-time data, red teams that would challenge the dominant point of view, and forecasting tournaments.

He started out in an enviable position, with huge influence over the UK prime minister. Corporate innovation professionals tell Future Proof repeatedly how important it is to have top-level buy-in if you are planning to shake things up. The team that built payments service PagoFX, for example, told Future Proof how important it was to have the support of Ana Botin, executive chairman. It doesn’t get much more top-level than having the ear of the prime minister.

Cummings forgot the second, important lesson of change management: you need allies.

But Cummings forgot the second, important lesson of change management. You need to build allies across the organisation if you want to get things done. Again and again, corporate innovation leaders have told us how much time they spend on internal networking.

“This job is partly a constant internal PR and marketing exercise. I have to spend a lot of time connecting with senior people at the different business units, asking about their needs and how we can help them,” Hugo Bongers, director of ABN AMRO Ventures told Sifted in this interview.

An internal skunkworks of 5 or 6 people might be great at knocking out some innovative prototypes. But if you really want to scale these and push them out to the whole of the company’s customer base, you are going to need the collaboration of many different departments. You need the procurement team and legal team on board — and funnily enough, people are much less likely to help you if you’ve been publicly denigrating them as “hollow men incapable of thinking wisely”.

Funnily enough, people are less likely to help you if you’ve been publicly denigrating them.

“My advice for a new head of innovation would be to focus on building trusting relationships across your range of internal stakeholders from the very start: that means business teams, IT, legal, compliance, risk, digital etc,” Diana Biggs told Sifted in this interview.  “Creating an open and collaborative working relationship centred on a shared goal will reap long-term benefits..

In fact, people help you best when they get a share in the glory — and better yet if you manage to convince them that the whole thing was their idea in the first place.

Cummings is not the first or last disruptor to learn the hard way that grafting Silicon Valley ideas to a centuries-old institution is harder than it looks.

There are, in general, two types for the head of innovation role. You have the entrepreneurs who come in from outside the company to shake things up and you have the long-term company employees who move into the role after stints in marketing or on the corporate strategy team.

The first kind tends to come in with newer and more radical ideas. But they often have a fairly short tenure at the company, eventually becoming frustrated and disillusioned by the slow speed of change.

The head of innovation role is one of the highest turnover roles in corporate leadership.

“The head of innovation role is one of the highest turnover roles in corporate leadership,” Christina Wallace, entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard Business School told Future Proof in this interview.

Rahmyn Kress, whose background was in transforming the music industry, parted company with Henkel only two years after coming in with plans for a big rethink at the chemicals company. Diana Biggs, whose background in is blockchain,  is leaving her role as global head of innovation at HSBC after less than two years. Stephen Rapaport, cofounder of PACT Coffee, lasted two years as head of disruptive innovation at Unilever. Many of them go back to running startups.

With Dominic Cummings, many commentators have observed that being good at running campaigns doesn’t necessarily make you good at running the country. It requires a different skillset and a less abrasive style.

As Boris Johnson is no doubt now learning, hiring for the head of innovation role is an extremely tricky thing. You are looking for a divergent thinker who nevertheless understands how to navigate internal corporate politics. Not an easy combination to find, but we get some interesting insights from corporate venturing firm Bundl this week  on how companies might make sure they hire the right person. Should we forward a copy on to the prime minister, too?