Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Innovation's dirty secrets

Well, Scott Berkun beat me to it, so go read his article The Secret about Innovation Secrets and then come back here for the rest of the story.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.

You're back?  Good.  And a bit disappointed, I'm sure.  Well, I'm not here to debate any of the points that Scott made.  If you were hoping that there is a "secret formula" for innovation success, you were wrong.  But you knew that anyway, deep down inside.  Anything worth anything requires work and investment.

No, the dirty secret about innovation is that there aren't any secrets.  There's no magic formula, there's no "one best way".  As Edison said, often opportunity is missed by most people because it wears overalls and comes disguised as work.  The same is true of innovation. 

Berkun's best points come at the end, when he says that innovation is taking a bet against the unknown.  Innovation should be about creating something new.  In most businesses that are optimized for sustaining existing products and services, creating something new requires two difficult tasks - diverting resources from products and services that are already "successful" at some level, and developing something completely new, often in a new market segment or targeting a new customer segment.  So, the work involves taking resources from a known entity and investing in an uncertain one.  Most firms would rather double down on the known entity, even if the returns haven't been what were expected, rather than invest in an uncertain outcome.

Another point I made by quoting Edison is that there's no secret formula to escape the "work" of innovation.  If, like Edison, or many other innovators, you are to succeed at innovation, then you'll need to be prepared to actually, you know, WORK at it.  This means you'll have to spot opportunities well in advance of your competitors, generate ideas, develop the ideas, test and prototype the ideas, and hopefully launch something new.  Edison's quip about knowing a thousand ways not to make a lightbulb is aprocryphal but also true - his team invested years testing a range of different filaments, all in the quest to create a viable electric light bulb.  That took investment and real work.  There's simply no escaping that fact.

When you add these two facts together - an uncertain investment into the unknown combined with a significant amount of actual new work - it's little wonder that many firms shy away from innovation, or skip along the surface rather than diving deeply.  This isn't a commitment to be taken half-heartedly or lightly, and many firms that have attempted and "failed" at innovation simply weren't truly committed.  It wasn't as if their people lacked ideas or lacked the capabilities for innovation - the firms weren't truly aware or invested in the innovation effort.

And that's the real secret about innovation.  Firms that are successful are down and dirty, doing innovation work regularly and fully committed to innovation success.  There's no magic formula, and Steve Jobs and the guys at Google aren't that much smarter or more innovative, just more committed.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:23 AM


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