Friday, November 05, 2010

The real product of innovation

I think we've been thinking about innovation all wrong, at least conceptually speaking.  I don't mean that terms like "incremental" or "disruptive" are wrong, or that techniques like crowdsourcing or "open innovation" aren't often effective.  What I think many firms are getting wrong is their expectation about outcomes, regardless of the tools and techniques.

You see, what they miss is what innovation should produce - a new mindset, and what they expect - no demand - is far more tactical.  A new product.  What could become a complete transformative effort ends up as a Quixotic effort to squeeze out one small, discrete new product.  And once that's done, often the firm reverts right back to its existing methods and frameworks, having missed the much larger and more powerful opportunity.

It's not all that hard to create a new product, and with the right set of people and the right conditions, it's not difficult to create interesting and even radical new products.  What's difficult is to transform the way people think about the company and it's reason for being - what it produces, what it's opportunities are, what it's place is in the market, and ultimately why it exists.  Yes, I've gone all existential on you, but for a reason.  Many would-be innovators are playing with tools and techniques they don't fully understand, with a commitment level that will only achieve the barest hint of what's possible.  It's as if we are tinkering with the blasting cap on top of the missile that contains a nuclear warhead.  We may get a small bang but miss the opportunity to create exceptionally radical change that was available all the time.

I see CEOs and other corporate executives who talk about radical change for their firm and employee engagement all the time.  They claim to want to set off the nuclear missile.  But most of their innovation teams are so focus on creating just one new product that all they do in the end is tamper with the blasting cap.  The possibilities are there for really interesting, radical change - not just one new product or service but a radically different, more engaged and more capable organization.  One that isn't tinkering with innovation to merely create an occasional new product, but one that is fully engaged and innovative, and spins off new ideas and new products as a matter of course.  Yes, it's the difference between the zen pupil and the zen master, but at least the zen student conceives of a different "state".  Most innovators think they've achieved enlightenment when they've created one new product - missing the fact that shifting the culture and expectations of the firm is the ultimate win.

What most firms really want - faster product development, insightful and valuable new products and services, closer ties to customers and engaged employees - are outcomes that can be achieved by moving much further as an innovative organization.  You can't achieve this in discrete innovation projects - occasional brainstorming doesn't get you there.  You can achieve it if the expectation for innovation is less about the product and more about the culture, the beliefs and the value propositions of the firm. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:51 AM

5 Comments:

OpenID Kate said...

I agree that changing the mindset of an organisation is a far more beneficial (albeit much harder) strategy. One of the main problems with this, however, is that it takes a long time to get to this point and in the mean time investors/ senior management are likely to be demanding a return on their investment. A (financial) ROI is very hard to demonstrate when what you're trying to change is so widespread and hard to link/ tie to the bottom line.

I would suggest, therefore, that what is needed is either:
a.) A management team completely on board and willing to invest and trust in a long term innovation strategy.
or
b.) A short term strategy of creating new products alongside the longer term (and probably secondary by necessity) strategy of changing mindsets.

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