Unrealistic Expectations and the failure of innovation
Innovation has happened, it is happening, and it will happen, as long as there are problems to solve or needs to be addressed and a market that is willing to reward the inventor or innovator for their troubles. Almost all of the advancement in human history is due to innovation - in agriculture, in societies, in medicine, in technology and in education. Rather than doubt the power of innovation, review human history and see the impact of innovation across centuries. People in past decades or centuries would not believe the modern marvels we have, the life of leisure many people enjoy today, and almost all of that advancement is due to inventors and innovation.
Yet we encounter in this narrative a "forest and trees" issue. The long term, significant impact of innovation can blur and become meaningless as we want more change and more innovation. Rather than identify long term patterns and successive progress we leap to individual stories of innovation failure and grasp only the individual data point. We fall prey to immediately observable "failures" of innovation, rather than understanding the sweep of innovation over time. Thus, our immediate personal experiences or stories that we read about innovation failure, or people who identify challenges with innovation overwhelm our ability to recognize all the value that innovation provides.
Why does innovation "fail"?
Which should raise the question: why does innovation fail? If so much advancement over so many decades and centuries is based on successful innovation, why does innovation "fail", and when it does, why do we immediately assume that innovation is a fraud, or impractical, rather than recognizing the trial and error, start and restart, creative destruction nature of innovation? I chalk a lot of it up to unrealistic expectations.
Innovation is a tool, nothing more. As Archimedes said, give me a spot to stand on and I can move the world. He was referring to the use of a lever, which can translate a small amount of effort into a significant force by relying on a simple principle of leverage. While a man may not be able to lift a heavy weight directly, using a lever and fulcrum the same individual can lift the weight. This demonstrates the power of a tool well used. Innovation is a tool as well. When used correctly, for the right tasks, and in the right hands, innovation is a force magnifier and leverages creativity and insight to create new solutions. But the tool is only powerful when used in the appropriate settings, with the correct training and application, and with the right expectations.
Innovation fails out of context
Note the three criteria I posited: settings, training and expectations. I like to tell our clients that innovation is not "free magic". If they have experienced difficulty creating interesting new products and services previously, merely muttering the word "innovation" isn't going to change the outcomes. There are no magical results, no magic wands. Innovation is a tool that can be applied thoughtfully, carefully and after deep understanding and practical knowledge. Even then it cannot guarantee success. Innovation cannot create magical outcomes, and the outcomes it does create come at the cost of reallocated priorities, unusual investments, skill development and time.
What many firms want when they "innovate" is a magical result. They want to immediately overcome organizational resistance to change, ignore the machinations of their internal development processes and overlook doubts and risk to instantly create a new product or service, with little investment, learning or change. These are unrealistic expectations, and what's more, every person involved understands how impossible and unrealistic these commitments are. In previous posts I've referred to this style of innovation as the "Potemkin Village" approach to innovation. This is innovation for appearance sake, in which innovation is a pantomime for an audience. The Soviet people had a saying for this kind of pantomime - you pretend to pay us and we'll pretend to work.
Lacking time, lacking training, lacking innovation experience people will fall back on known and trusted models - which have been generating incremental changes for years. Why are we surprised when the vast majority of innovation projects result in products and services that look like the existing products and services? Without introducing anything new to the system, the system provides what it has always provided.
A firm that has spent the last 20 years focusing on efficiency, cost-cutting and right sizing cannot simply "implement" innovation without cultural change, introducing risk and reward changes, training on new skills and capabilities, and introducing new tools and thinking. Trying to force a highly efficient, risk adverse organization to create "disruptive" products without a change in attitude or the correct investments is foolhardy and points to unrealistic expectations. Innovation can be a powerful force, but it requires change, time, skills development and a new way of thinking. These changes don't happen overnight, but take years to adopt.
Further, while anyone, anywhere in a firm can create a good idea, it takes years to move through approval cycles, resourcing cycles, development cycles and commercialization. Often when we are asked when innovation will begin to demonstrate value, I'll answer in two or three years. When we are quizzed on this answer, I'll ask about product development and commercialization cycles. If we had the perfect idea today, and placed it in the product or service development queue, when could we have the product ready for the market? When could we launch it? What are you willing to defund in order to move the idea ahead? You see, it's not merely creating an idea. Using a baseball analogy, that may be second base. Getting to home requires getting the product built, deployed and into the market, generating revenue. That process is often what hampers innovation, not the generation of ideas. Magical thinking leads to the belief that once we have good ideas, the innovation work is done and we can reap the benefits.
Another unrealistic expectation is found in the depth and breadth of product thinking. If for years your team has been providing incremental improvements to existing products, and has been taught that regulation, compliance, competition and other factors limit significant change, demanding "disruptive" innovation from the team without resetting their thinking is useless. Just as an elephant learns that an ankle cuff means he is staked down and can't move, people and teams adopt a cramped, limited thinking model, and can't release themselves to think more broadly until it is demonstrated by a leadership team that they MUST do so. Anything less than radical or disruptive is failure. But the commitment levels, communication programs and cultural resets take time and focus from management teams that are completely focused on the next quarter. It's far easier to demand disruptive innovation than it is to invest time and resources to change cultures, skill sets and tool sets to instill a new way of thinking and expanded scope.
Changing the Innovation dynamic
What we need to do to create more innovation is to train future managers and leaders about the investments necessary to achieve innovation capability and outcome. Innovation is not free, it's not magical and it can't produce immediate results. What it is is a powerful force that once effectively taught and unleashed can create significant positive change for a business. Thinking of innovation as a capacity or capability rather than a discrete project can help as well. Far too often innovation is seen as an isolated project to respond to a specific market threat or condition. But all the same factors apply. People need to reset their thinking, adopt new tools for innovation and move an idea rapidly through product development and commercialization. If you are going to do all of this work once in order to be successful, why not institutionalize the effort and create a culture where innovation is a constant force, rather than an occasional nuisance?