Thursday, July 19, 2012

Innovate in your own skin

In case you're wondering, I often apologize to my clients when I use references to Apple, Google, 3M or Proctor&Gamble.  I apologize because I think that these firms are overused as innovation references, and in that overuse we build up these firms as the arbiters of innovation success.  There are reasons why we talk about these firms and focus so much of our attention on these firms.  First, they are relatively successful innovators over a long period of time.  Second, they receive a lot of press and market coverage based on their success, much of which they themselves generate.

But for many nascent innovators there are dangers as we define an "innovation royalty".  Some may think that innovation is possible only for a small handful of visionary firms, or that Apple and 3M have the only innovation "secret sauce".  Others may believe that innovation is OK for some firms but not possible or necessary for others, depending on geography, industry or competition.  Still others may believe that to innovate, they need to emulate what these firms do.  And to me, the last danger may be the biggest problem of them all.

You can't innovate like Apple

Many firms we work with want to understand what makes Apple so special, and they want to know if there are "secrets" to Apple's success that they can copy or emulate.  I'll often tell them "not unless you've got a Steve Jobs lying around".  Apple's success is due in great part to a potentially unreplaceable visionary leader, who had incredible foresight combined with marketing genius.  But more to the point, you don't want to innovate like Apple.  Their methods, their style, their approach is probably different from how you work, your culture and what your customers need and want.  Note that Apple has a different innovation "style" than Google - in fact they are almost polar opposites, and 3M's methods differ from both Apple's and Google's.  Here's a place where "best practices" becomes dangerous - you can't emulate Apple's innovation style, but you do want to emulate Apple's innovation success.

Innovating in your own skin

Rather than don the style or "skin" of a different firm, what you need to do is discover what makes your firm interesting, unique and different, and capitalize on your strengths.  Then, you need to embed innovation activities, methods and cultural bias in the organization to support and sustain your strengths.  There are innovation "best practices" you can deploy, but most of them have to do with changes to routine issues like compensation, rewards, training, staff availability and so forth.  Ultimately, your innovation approach needs to be your own, based on your strategies and goals, aligned to your vision, and bounded by your existing and potential skills and capabilities.

Why would you want to mimic Apple?  Does it make sense for your team to pretend it is Apple for a day or so, only to be confronted with the realities of the business when they return to their regular jobs?  No!  You need to understand the existing strengths and capabilities, and define a path that takes you where your firm wants to go, and build innovation skills and methods into the fabric of the organization.  In this way, using the fabric analogy, you will weave an entirely new culture that embraces innovation, and shapes innovation in its own way.

Learn from, don't emulate or imitate

Should we learn from Apple, Google and so forth?  Absolutely, but what we need to do is distill the reasons, characteristics and factors that make these firms so successful at innovating and understand how those factors can be deployed in our organizations.  Apple's has been about a small team of visionary leaders who seek to disrupt the market with improve customer experience.  3M's vision is about constant investment in new R&D brought to market very quickly.  Google's is about bubbling up ideas from everyone.  What's constant across these approaches is commitment, an engaged culture and sponsorship.  Everything else is different!  Don't worry about imitating Apple, or Google, or some other firm.  Understand the basics and make innovation your own.  You will never be Apple, just as Apple (thankfully) could never be IBM or Compaq.  Start with the innovation basics, understand your strengths and differentiators, and carve your own path.  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it doesn't differentiate you and it may not accelerate change at all.

As we used to say in Texas, the only things in the middle of the road are yellow lines and roadkill.  You can't copy the leaders, and you don't want to.  Understand innovation basics, methods, models and cultural phenomena, internalize them, and make them your own.  This is where most firms fall down - they can't make the tools and methods their own.  They always seem foreign, as if they are wearing someone else's clothes.  The tools and methods, the approach and goals need to be cut to fit the firm that you are.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:05 AM


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