Innovation is a hallmark of the digital revolution yet for many companies innovation remains hard. The popular book The Innovator’s Dilemma notes that companies often either ignore a disruptive technology or if they recognize it, they try to manage it like their traditional business. The book says companies need to recognize the disruptive technology and then set up a separate unit to manage it.
The U.S. Postal Service finds itself struggling to innovate in a rapidly changing communications market. Yet, stakeholders agree that innovation is necessary to transform the Postal Service into a 21st century provider. The Postal Service has indicated a willingness to try new things, as allowed under the current law, but the time it takes new ideas to become a product or service is often too long in this fast-changing market. Some stakeholders have suggested the creation of a small, dedicated innovation unit that would have the authority to make partnership decisions and the flexibility to bring innovative products and services to market quickly. The major postal reform legislation now before Congress includes a provision that could essentially lay the groundwork for such a unit.
The Postal Service actually tried small, cross-functional business units in the late 1990s. It had an international business unit that was given considerable autonomy and an Expedited Package Services (EPS) group located completely outside of headquarters in Atlanta. The EPS group was given freedom to pursue new partnerships and parcel services. Insiders might argue over how much of the credit EPS deserves, but in its short life, a number of package services were revamped or unveiled, including Parcel Select, Carrier Pickup of residential packages, and the groundbreaking contract with FedEx to provide airlift for Priority Mail. These separate units probably had some flops too, but innovation means taking risks and being allowed to fail occasionally.
Do you think a small, agile, cross-functional “innovation unit,” led by a chief innovation officer, would help the Postal Service launch new products and services? Or does a dedicated innovation czar create a bottleneck that is inconsistent with the spirit of having innovative thinking permeate the entire organization? Would an “incubator” or “innovation lab” approach be better? What institutional changes might be needed to promote innovation? Does the current regulatory environment allow the Postal Service enough latitude to innovate effectively?