Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The innovation "silver bullet"

When I was a kid, only the Lone Ranger and Werewolf hunters used silver bullets.  It was never really clear to me why a guy in a mask with a native american counterpart needed fancy bullets, but who's to say?  The need for silver bullets when hunting unholy creatures of the night makes more sense to me, at least in an allegorical sense.  What isn't clear at all is when the "silver bullet" became synonymous with a big win.  And, more recently, why anyone would want a "silver bullet" in innovation.

Today's diatribe was sparked by a recent Accenture survey of executives about innovation.  One question asked the executives to respond to "My organization is looking for the next silver bullet rather than pursuing a portfolio of ideas".  Executives could strongly agree, agree, remain neutral, disagree or strongly disagree.  58% of the executives who responded strongly agreed or agreed with this statement, and another 16% were neutral.  Of course every firm hopes for significant, disruptive returns from innovation, but placing these unreasonable and outsized bets on innovation to deliver the one "giant killer" idea is unrealistic and unfair to the innovation teams.

What's wrong with a big, hairy audacious goal?  Nothing.  But when you place so much emphasis on one exceptional idea, you create a number of terrible outcomes.  Those include:
  1. Ignoring a number of really good ideas since they aren't the "silver bullet"
  2. Placing unreasonable expectations on teams that aren't used to innovating, which are already under significant pressure with limited resources and timelines
  3. Placing all of your eggs in one basket
As I like to say, when I go hunting for whales, I like to keep my eyes open for the other big fish.  If I bring home a tuna or marlin, I never come home empty handed.  But if, like Ahab, I am so single minded that only the big white whale will do, then more likely than not I'll come home disappointed.  Big, game changing innovation is difficult to do, even in firms that do innovation well.  It's notoriously difficult in firms that under-resource innovation or don't have good methods or processes, or a culture that resists innovation.

What I'd prefer to see, and what we at OVO advocate, is the development of a portfolio of ideas, spanning the gamut from incremental to disruptive.  What we know about innovation is that many ideas won't become new products and services, starting out we just don't know which ones will fall by the wayside.  Working a broad portfolio means that even when some ideas fall out, some still remain.  Chasing one single, game changing silver bullet idea is impractical, often wasteful and usually doomed.  And once a team fails to deliver that silver bullet, innovation is ruled a failure, when it was the goal, not the process, that was the problem.

Are our management teams really that strategically bankrupt, to demand a "silver bullet" idea?  Does every executive team demand the "iPod" of their marketplace from their innovation teams?  Are these simply mind games that executives play to "stretch" the thinking of the teams, or do they actually expect these kind of ideas are laying around for the taking?  Note that exactly one "iPod" idea has been generated in the MP-3 market in the last decade.  If this is so easy and so straightforward, why hasn't there been a disruption in that marketplace?

Silver bullets are for killing werewolves.  Innovation is for creating a pipeline of incremental and disruptive ideas for new products and services.  Any executive who demands a "silver bullet" from an innovation program doesn't understand the purpose of innovation and has unreasonable expectations about the outcomes.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:56 PM


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