Monday, January 15, 2007

An Innovation State of Mind

I receive the "Swamp Fox" newsletter and respect what John Warner is trying to accomplish in the Southeast. His goal is to create an innovation corridor from Research Triangle Park to Atlanta, encompassing a number of excellent public universities, national laboratories and Fortune 500 companies in a community of innovation.

His latest post on Swamp Fox, though, expressed in some terms the real problem associated with innovation, especially in larger firm. The statement "we're just not innovative" is fraught with problems. An outlook like this can only come from one of several attitudes:

  • We were innovative once, but aren't any longer. Somewhere along the way we lost the innovation magic. We were innovative once - since we built the company up from nothing to something substantial, but now we just exist to keep the company running
  • We'd like to be more innovative, but it's simply too much work and too much risk. We'd all prefer to create new and exciting products, but there's no reward in it and too much risk.
  • Innovation sounds cool, but I've got all these other pressing jobs. In fact it turns out my biggest competitor is about to release a new product, so I've got to figure out how to make my products cost less
  • There's too much bureaucracy to create something new here
What I can't understand and can't stomach is the absolute surrender implied in these statements. If you "just aren't innovative" then you are on the slow track to oblivion. Every company was innovative at least once sometime in their past, and innovation is not like quantum physics, which will take years to learn and master. Innovation capability is first and foremost a state of mind.

If you truly want your firm to become more innovative, make it a cultural standard. This has to come from the "top down" but can bubble up from a committed team. Shake off the lethargy and understand that every competitor on the planet is trying to figure out how to knock your firm out of contention, and eventually out of business. If you aren't innovating, then your firm is dying. Is that the statement you want your team to hear?

Any firm - let me repeat - any firm can be innovative. There is no special talent necessary, no advanced degrees. What is required is a will and a mindset that sponsors change and innovation across the board. Look at most "innovative" companies. Apple is not a well-oiled machine, but Jobs encourages and expects innovation. P&G is not a small shop in a garage but a mammoth organization, proving that large firms can innovate. The overriding force necessary for innovation is a state of mind and the willingness to innovate. The rest is great execution.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:14 AM

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