This is the true story of middle managers Fred and George, and what happened when their company decided to "explore innovation". The story was sent to us by a reader who shares our views on business model innovation. Names have been changed and the story has been only lightly edited.

Act 1: The Messenger Is Born

Fred and George are builders. Their job is to dig holes, and they are both good at the job. They attend the yearly company meetings, know about the purpose and mission of the organization, and you would describe them as good workers. The organization could be described as doing well. Orders for holes are good, employee satisfaction is high, customer satisfaction is high. The company still has a competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive market.

However, George could be described as a rebel. He reads a lot and engages on social media, and along the way he has learned more about the future of work. He has learned how a company whose business is digging holes might explore how a building-mounds business model could work — and he's learned that, in fact, the building-mounds business model might make sure the company doesn't get Netflixed.

Act 2: Message Not Received

George shared his findings with his company's board and some of the stakeholders. These leaders could see the value of building mounds, but affirmed they would like the company to continue to focus on digging holes. "Our core business is in digging holes, and any innovation will happen in this space," said one senior leader.

George's boss acknowledged that George is creative, but asked him to focus on digging holes and put all ideas of building mounds out of his brain.

Act 3: Wrong Message

Recently George's management team held an innovation camp and decided to "digitize" the hole-digging experience. Popular ideas from the innovation camp:

  • Crowdsource ideas on how to dig holes more productively
  • Look to "dominate social media" by producing live videos on hole-digging and sharing them on sites like Facebook. One executive told George that younger people may be interested in hole-digging on Snapchat, of course not realizing the comedic value.

George agrees reluctantly to these initiatives, but nonetheless, he knows there is more.

Act 4: The Messenger Is Shot Down

Meanwhile, Fred gets on with his hole-digging work. Actually he is a model for the organization. Focused and attentive. Management describes him as a rising star, someone who can be relied on.

However, George is increasingly becoming a "management" problem. In his own time, he wrote a detailed report on why the organization should abandon digging holes and move to the new business model of building mounds. George "shares" with senior managers many articles on innovation and looking at new business models.

The result: George's boss told him that the CEO had read his report and while the report was good, George's job was digging holes. In fact, George was told that his hole-digging numbers were quite low in comparison to Fred's. Perhaps, if George were to reach Fred's performance level, that would give George a "greater gravitas" to make the argument about business models.

Act 5: The Messenger Is Buried

Some months go by, with George thinking about leaving.  When George discusses that he wants to move other types of businesses from holes to mounds, his boss asks whether he has any experience with this type of change. George doesn't, so he can't move forward.

Suddenly, a new department opens. George finds out that Fred will head a new team looking at new business models. George's boss says he hopes that George will give Fred his all support, as George is well known as an ideas person.

Epilogue: What Should George Do?

Should George be satisfied with this outcome? At what point in this story would you have changed what George did?  What does George and Fred's story tell you?

How many middle managers with innovation in their DNA see the need for new business models for their industry, but are unable to execute it?

Note: If, like George, you’re a lone and lonely innovator at your company, join us Sept 14–15 in Providence, RI, for BIF2016.

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