Monday, February 15, 2010

Innovation - an era or a fad?

I had a rather disconcerting part in a recent discussion with some senior leaders and executives who were discussing innovation.  It was interesting to hear from some of them that they believe "innovation" is a fad, and will run its course shortly.  They believe that innovation is simply another "quick fix" elixir cooked up by management consultants to find new things to sell to senior executives.  Some others in the discussion believed that innovation is more systemic, and will have a longer shelf life, and add value for many years to come.  I found myself disagreeing with both schools of thought.

The cynics suggest that innovation is simply a buzz word for creating new products or services, something that many firms already do.  In that regard they view innovation as the current flash in the pan, meant to distract everyone from the real problems and place a nice bow on a box that already exists.  To these cynics I say - you couldn't be more wrong.  In a market that is moving and changing as quickly as the one we are experiencing now, and an environment where consumers are demanding more, and better, products and services, and in a production environment where any new idea can be copied fairly quickly, the only real winners are those who create substantially new concepts on a consistent basis.  The old, static product lives and days of lower competition are over.  Innovation isn't a "nice to have" or a "flash in the pan", it is rapidly becoming the most important skill set your organization can acquire.

For those who believe innovation does add value and can be more systemic, I say they are right, but only partly so.  They see innovation as a tool that can be used, until the next tool comes along.  This follows the theory of "waves".  There was the "wave" of quality improvement, followed by the "wave" of rightsizing and outsourcing.  Now, these folks believe, is the time for the "wave" of innovation, which will run its course and introduce a new wave of something else yet unseen.  The problem with considering innovation as a wave with a specific time horizon is that new products and services will continue to be important long after the expected time frame of the "wave" is complete.  If your investment is to simply adopt innovation as the next tool down the pike, and expect to jettison it once the wave is over, your team won't commit the necessary resources to innovate effectively.  It will be a sideline to the "real work" of the organization, eagerly awaiting the next wave or fad.

No, here's where I diverge from the discussion.  We are in a fundamental environmental shift.  The pace of change and the increase in global competition means that the way we work has to change.  Innovation isn't an interesting sideshow or fad, unless your management team allows it to be.  Innovation isn't a wave or trend for the next "x" years to be replaced by something else.  Innovation is THE differentiator between firms that are thriving and healthy today, and those that will be thriving and healthy a decade from now, because innovation isn't a fad, and isn't a wave, but is going to become a permanent way of life, a sustaining capability for the firms that understand the shift underway and adopt innovation as a cultural imperative.

If you think this doesn't matter then simply consider the culture and environment of the organization where you'd most like to work.  Do you want to work in a firm that places emphasis on the future and staying abreast of trends and new ideas, or do you want to work in a firm where the constant activity is reacting to what other firms do in the market?  The most innovative firms will attract the best people and accelerate their capabilities, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The firms with less innovation skill will atrophy because they can't compete on new ideas, and they can't generate new products and services fast enough to retain customers.

What's it going to take for us to wake up and realize that innovation is the most important skill we can gain within most organizations?  I recognize that this kind of change threatens the status quo, but if we ignore the shifts underway in the market and economy we risk a future with far fewer jobs and far fewer opportunities.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:59 AM


Blogger John Michitson said...


I agree with your position. The biggest distraction from innovation is that "culture eats strategy for breakfast." Many "fakers" over-use the term, but run the shop the old fashion way.

I think the clearest examples of real innovation are new ventures and Corporations' use of external partners to the next level - open innovation. Open innovation using social networking is still a new frontier - how to leverage external experts.



3:37 PM  
Anonymous Josh Gluckman said...

Interesting post, as I've recently seen similar sentiments here in Australia.

While I'm clearly in your camp in terms of the fundamentally stepped-up need for systemic innovation (!!), I think we'll see more and more innovation efforts carried out under a range of alternative banners.

For example, customer experience, corporate entrepreneurship, and more the general banners of organisational 'transformation' and 'culture change'.

With some corporates having had now one (or two) high profile attempts at the 'innovation' push, there's potentially wariness of over-use, and baggage. (Much like some organisations see in the 'sustainability' space).

So while the need and interest in what you or I might call 'innovation' might still be there (and indeed, only increasing as an imperative), we may indeed see more cases of 'innovation in nature, but not in name'.

Not ideal, but better than no emphasis at all!

6:20 PM  
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