Wednesday, April 05, 2006

If it's not hard, it's not worth doing

I was speaking with a prospective partner in another firm about innovation. His recent discovery was that innovation is "hard". By that he meant that there are a significant number of moving parts that must align for a firm to innovate successfully. Some of these moving parts include corporate culture, corporate strategy, communications, turf wars and motivation. It can be very difficult to corral these moving parts successfully.

Innovation is hard in an existing company because it often changes the very fabric of the way a firm works. Yesterday I wrote about Michelin, which is changing its culture to become much more "open" in the way it innovates, surely a difficult task for a firm with such emphasis on engineering and science. Innovation is hard because it introduces increased risk into organizations that have worked very hard over the last few years to eliminate mistakes and risks. Just ask anyone who has been through Sarbox or Six Sigma or FDA Validation what they think of introducing new processes and concepts to the existing systems.

Innovation is hard because there's very little consensus about what it means. Incremental innovation or disruptive innovation? Product innovation or service innovation? There's a significant amount of discussion but no clear definitions within many businesses as to what we mean when we talk about innovation. Innovation is hard because it does not appear to "belong" to any one team or person. The financials belong to the CFO. The responsibility for sales belong to the VP of Sales. Most business functions or processes have a very clear owner. Who "owns" innovation in a business?

Yet, as many philosophers have told us, the easy stuff isn't really all that rewarding. The "hard" changes and decisions we make about our businesses are the ones that create change - hopefully for the better. Yes, innovation and the impacts that it brings to any business are challenging, but let's also consider the alternative. Downsizing or shutting down a firm that can't compete is difficult work. Struggling to compete with nimble, low cost competitors is "hard".

No doubt innovation is hard work and creates change, but that change is worth it. There are enough examples of dramatic change introduced into a market (old line air carriers versus low fare carriers, NetFlix versus Blockbuster, Blockbuster versus the cinema) that demonstrate that innovation is usually worth the effort and the risk.

The fact that innovation is difficult is not a rationale for not innovating. In fact, an argument that innovation is hard and therefore the firm will not innovate is not only a cop-out, but an abdication of decision making and a lack of will to remain successful over the long run. Yes, innovation is hard, just as implementing ERP was hard, or improving product quality was hard, or opening overseas manufacturing was hard. But the difficult of these projects and initiatives did not ultimately block their advancement, and neither should the challenges associated with innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:59 AM

14 Comments:

Blogger Swamp Fox said...

Jeffrey

Re:" Innovation is hard because there's very little consensus about what it means."

I think it is even tougher than that. Many time it is not an intellectual problem, it is an emotional problem. Companies can be run be very smart people who in their heads know they have to change, but in their hearts the can not belive they can't come to work tomorrow and do the same things they have over many years and not get the same results. In companies whose business model has become obsolete, you will hear that we just wrok harder and be more focused - anything except that we need to fundamentally change.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Servant of Chaos said...

Innovation is difficult in those companies where the creative arteries have hardened. However, those new companies who come into a market don't see innovation as hard work ... the innovation simply occurs as the end result of hard work.
Often these "upstarts" are not planning to change the company ... they are planning to change the marketplace.
Sure it is important to look internally ... but don't forget your customers. Watch what they do, listen to what they say and while you are responding you will find that you are reinvigorating your business.

4:53 AM  
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