Thursday, April 15, 2010

What if innovation was the norm?

If you've spent any time around innovators, you'll know that a lot of good happens right after someone utters the phrase "what if".  There's so much potential and possibility in those two words.  With a sentence beginning "what if" we can release ourselves from preconceived notions and the way we usually do things, and explore a different reality.  What if is powerful.  What if is liberating.

So, I was thinking that often innovation is considered to be the exception in a business, and that got me thinking - what if we flipped the hypothesis?  What if innovation was the regular course of business, and some boring status quo constraint was the exception?  Today we run our businesses based on a don't vary, don't fail, don't risk constrained model.  What if our business model was infused with innovation, and we looked with surprise when someone wanted to retreat to safety and security?  What would that look like?

A business that took as its first imperative an innovation focus would be constantly striving to understand customer wants and needs, especially the needs that aren't fulfilled or even recognized.  For a firm focused on innovation, the first priority would be to discover new opportunities and create new products and services to meet unmet or unarticulated needs.  Note that the ideas would have to solve an important, relevant need, as no one wants to create products or services that aren't useful or aren't necessary.

A firm that took innovation as its "norm" would encourage a lot of experimentation, research and investigation.  As compared to a traditional firm, time investments would almost reverse.  Where traditional firms place a significant amount of time and investment in development, manufacturing and launch, a truly innovative firm would place much more time and emphasis on trend spotting, understanding needs and piloting/prototyping. 

A firm truly focused on innovation would require a significantly lower investment in sales and marketing than a traditional firm.  Any firm that really understands the needs of its customers, tests its ideas rapidly and creates differentiated products and services will draw consumer to it.  It won't need as much investment in sales and marketing because its brand, its products and its customers will do that work for it.

A firm that was focused first on innovation would constantly have to renew itself - relying on new employees, new perspectives, new relationships to constantly gather insights and to stay relevant.  The culture would have to be anchored around a set of innovation principles rather than reinforced by long term employees. 

The people in such a firm would be an interesting mix of creative, energetic, opinionated people who are networked widely and have an extensive set of interests, experiences and education.  Unlike most firms that recruit for more people who reflect their existing workforce, a truly innovative firm would be constantly seeking new skills, talents and perspectives.  The man in the gray flannel suit would be welcomed, but only one or two, thank you very much.

As I've outlined it, I can think of some sectors or firms that achieve a lot of these characteristics, mostly in consultative firms, marketing agencies and branding firms.  While these firms are often very good at the "front end" they often aren't responsible for the development and delivery of new products and services, so their "backend" skills may be a bit suspect, and that's where all of the constrained thinking and resistance to variation occurs.  But just think about the possibilities of your firm, or any firm, deciding that innovation is the standard and safety and conformity are the exceptions, in opposition to what usually exists.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:16 AM


Blogger Peter Evans-Greenwood said...

Isn't ongoing an incremental innvoation on of the pillars of the LEAN movement? I remember visiting a Toyota factory once (a long time ago, before the current troubles) and was impresed by the people on the shop floor. They came to work wanting to see what had been changed/improved since their last shift, and were always looking for that incremental improvement. This attitude permiated the culture from top to bottom.

One could argue that the current troubles are the result of a focus on market share rather than the traditional forus on quality and incremental process innovation.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curious to know if anyone can identify other large companies that resemble this. Industries other than marketing that seem inclined to work this way? What about Apple? Google? Cisco? Microsoft???
Any pharma companies or are they too constrained by regulation? For that matter, what does regulatory compliance do to the innovative spirit?

5:30 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Venturing to undiscovered, uncertain ventures may be a tall order, if not risky. In this current economic downturn, I personally believe that there should be balance between doing things that are already proved to be effective, and doing things that have not been seen before. But I get your point on innovation. Everything always has to start with innovation.

Thanks to this, we've got a lot of discoveries and new tools and products at our disposal, ranging from electric cars, sophisticated mobile phones, to even manufacturing parts like engines and compression spring. Manufacturers around the world should indeed always integrate innovation in order to conquer new heights.

6:20 PM  
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