Wednesday, May 09, 2012

"Never" restricts innovation

There are a couple of really famous sayings that incorporate the word "never".  For instance, Satchel Paige is supposed to have said "Never look back - something may be gaining on you".  Or, "never judge someone until you've walked a mile in his shoes".  Or, finally, Einstein: "I never think of the future - it comes soon enough".  What risks we place on our thinking when we use a definitive word like "never" and how frequently we are wrong.  Let's examine what's wrong when executives, managers or innovators start with "never".

For instance, we worked with an insurance firm in the states and created a number of interesting new ideas.  We were told that they were "impossible" to implement because regulations created by Congress change so infrequently.  Well, the ongoing debate and new regulations and legislation about healthcare has made many things that were once unthinkable, thinkable.  What things do you take for granted?  What things does your business model assume will "never" change?  Those blind spots will allow competitors to sneak up on you.

Or, consider "never look back" or Einstein's "never think of the future".  Most corporations are firmly rooted in the moment.  The clocks are set to ring every 90 days, and then reset for the next 90 day interval.  Few firms look back at their beginnings, except in colorful coffee table books in the lobby, or look further ahead than the fiscal year.  Most organizations could learn a lot about themselves by looking back at the creation of the business, to understand the drivers that led to the creation of the business and the risks that those early innovators took.  Everything is not the same as it has always been.  Further, executives and managers need to look ahead, much further ahead.  The accelerating pace of change means that what seems a distant future is much, much closer than expected.  Like the saying on the rear view mirror, objects in the future are much closer than they may appear.  If you don't look back you'll miss a lot of what made your company great, and innovative, early.  If you don't look forward you'll miss the opportunities to thrive, and cede them to your competition.

Or, never look "down".  Many firms, once they reach a certain size, forget that they too once were small, scrappy competitors seeking to unseat the big boys.  Once a firm gains some requisite size, it becomes a "big boy" and ignores all competitors and entrants that are small.  But as Christensen has ably pointed out, disruptive innovation usually comes from underneath, and from outside, not from equally competitive firms and rarely from within the industry.  GM and Ford ignored Honda and Toyota.  Big Steel ignored Nucor.  Who are you ignoring? 

Next, never judge until you understand the situation or context.  Most product managers have never met a customer in the customer's context. Oh, they read reports from market researchers and sit in on a focus group or two, but never "walk a mile" in their customers' shoes.  How can we judge what people want, and what they need, without getting in their situations and contexts?  I'm convinced that many new products fail in the marketplace because they seem right in the product development team conference room, but don't match to customer needs or expectations.  If you never meet with a customer, you cannot be an innovator.

Finally, while there isn't a great quote about it, many innovators and product managers never network, meet or interact with people outside their industry, geography or job description.  Isolation isn't a means of innovation.  Good ideas happen at the confluence of people, ideas and interactions.  If you never mingle with people outside your sphere of influence, never go to conferences or tradeshows, never discuss issues with individuals in adjacent markets, you are missing many innovation opportunities.  Good innovation rarely wells up from within an industry or firm - it is adopted from other uses or situations.  Knowing who to interact with and what matters is half the battle.  If you never meet people outside your network, or fail to extend your network, you will fail to innovation.

Perhaps no other word should be anathema to innovators as the word "never".  Never is such a restrictive, convergent word.  It is often used to shut off debate or discussion, or to insist that something won't possibly change or occur.  In many cases whatever we argue will never occur often immediately does.  What "nevers" in your business are blocking innovation?  The assumption that the industry will "never" change?  The assumption that current conditions or market fixtures will never fall?  The assurance that smaller competitors and new entrants will never provide a product or service as good as yours?  The thinking that your firm will never embrace that much risk or uncertainty?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:10 AM


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