Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Innovation doesn't take a vacation

Yesterday, January 19th, we celebrated Martin Luther King Day in the US.  This is a Federal holiday meant to recognize and celebrate the work that MLK and others did to improve the lot of African Americans.  Since it is a Federal holiday, many businesses also recognize it, so yesterday, many employees stayed home, or used the long holiday weekend to visit family or make a quick get away.

Vacations and holidays are awesome. We all benefit from an opportunity to step away from our work, to recharge our batteries and refresh our thinking.  But one thing we all need to realize is that innovation, the inexorable march of change and emerging new ideas, never takes a vacation.  Innovation doesn't recognize holidays, or weekends, or sick days.  Innovation doesn't care about how busy you are just keeping up with day to day operations.  Innovation is out there, working, emerging, constantly evolving all the time.  When you take a day off, have a holiday or delay innovation activities or projects "until the time is right" then you are merely delaying the inevitable.  Because, to paraphrase Neil Young, innovation never sleeps, never vacations, never rests.  And the sooner you realize how quickly and how constantly innovation is occurring, the better you'll be able to either 1) decide to engage at the same level or 2) prepare to be eclipsed.

Now, this isn't a diatribe about holidays or vacations.  As Americans, we tend to work too much, ignore or reject vacation time.  Too much work leaves anyone tired, bored and uninspired.  Innovators recognize that new interactions or experiences can lead to new ideas or insights.  The challenge we face is that too often a vacation day or holiday simply compounds the amount of "business as usual" work we have to do the day we get back from holiday or vacation, because "business as usual" issues and work never sleep either.  If you are going to be behind in your work, and make choices between being behind at your regular work or your innovation efforts, which should you shortchange?  That depends.

It depends on how important you believe things like innovation, new product development, building the capability to change are to your business.  If your team believes that keeping pace day to day with existing competitors and products is most important, you'll shortchange innovation.  And you'll find yourself in good company, since most firms will emphasize day to day over the future.  You'll also have a much greater opportunity to commiserate with your colleagues, because all of those who focus on the mundane, business as usual will be disrupted, and far sooner than they can imagine.  Because innovation doesn't rest, doesn't sleep.  Here's the truth:  it only takes one innovator, one entrepreneur, one new entrant to disrupt a market.  If only one firm in your industry or one new entrant does innovate and create a compelling new product or service, it doesn't matter what the rest of the industry did.  If all of the other firms in your industry decide to shortchange innovation, and one new entrant creates a new product that customers demand, it's proof that innovation doesn't rest, doesn't take a vacation.

In fact it makes sense to say that new entrants, entrepreneurs and innovators should seek markets where the incumbents are taking a break, resting on past laurels, sure that existing channels, products and business models are secure.  We were busy celebrating Blockbuster just months before NetFlix swooped in to devastate its business model.  Nokia created and tested a touch screen phone years before Apple did, but safe and secure in cell phone handset leadership it did nothing.

If we were serious about innovation, here's what we should be using our vacations for - in fact what our employers should do:  intentionally send employee teams on vacation with the demand that they come back with interesting new ideas.  Send them someone new or different.  Send them somewhere that challenges their thinking and introduces new insights.  Perhaps every innovation project should begin with a vacation - a vacation from the mundane, day to day stuff that clogs our thinking. 

But this really isn't a blog about vacations.  This is a blog about persistence, about change, about the need to become far more vigilant.  As the character in the Great Gatsby replies when he was asked how he became bankrupt (gradually, then suddenly), innovators, entrepreneurs and new entrants don't sleep, don't put things off, don't wait until the time is right.  They are innovating now.  It's their number one priority.  Is it yours?  Can you afford to have another priority?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:31 AM


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