Friday, July 02, 2010

Secrets of innovation revealed

At innovation consultant's school, along with the long cape and decoder ring, most of us were issued with the ten secrets of innovation that we are sworn to protect.  This knowledge, handed down from the ancients, enables us to have great powers and sway over our customers.  Here, in this post, in a solo act of great bravery, I will expose the ten secrets of innovation for your use and inspection.  Like Prometheus, the giver of fire, I'll probably find myself tortured in perpetuity for this brazen act.  Unlike Prometheus, I'll be punished by repeated paper cuts and the occasional "out of paper" error message from my PC printer.  The horrors.

Herewith, the highly classified secrets of successful innovation:

  1. There are no secrets
  2. Always emphasize that there are secrets
  3. If questioned, defend the fact that there are secrets
  4. Otherwise average humans will be able to innovate
  5. When in doubt, refer to the first
  6. And so on
Let's be reasonable.  When anyone talks about "innovation secrets" they are usually doing so tongue in cheek, or trying to point out what should be readily obvious: there really aren't any secrets.  There are myths, of course, and you can read Scott Berkun's excellent Myths of Innovation book to see him debunk those myths.  When someone like Jeneanne Rae at Peer Insight writes about the dirty little secrets of innovation, she is merely pointing out what Orwell said "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle".

Now, everyone wants for there to be secrets.  If there are "secrets" then the average person can be excused for not innovating, since there is knowledge or insight that they lack and can't acquire.  That knowledge is intentionally kept from them.  To believe this assertion stretches all bounds of thinking.  Simply check out all of the books written about innovation - there are hundreds, from Christensen to von Hippl to Tucker to Chesbrough to Phillips!  And more on the way all the time.  There is a wealth of information available about innovation.  If there were any secrets, certainly a publisher would have paid top dollar to publish that book.

But if by secrets we mean "shortcuts", then we get to the real heart of the question.  Typically when people seek innovation "secrets" they've been confronted by the actual work involved in innovating, and are certain there must be an easier way.  They seek the secrets that will smooth the rough roads and provide a straighter, simpler path.  The work associated with innovation, especially for a team that is not full time, is simply new, different and daunting.  Certainly there must be another path.  So the secrets we search for are those that will cut corners, simplify the work and ensure success.  There are no shortcuts.

Innovation is the combination of insight and creativity at the front end, combined with evaluation, selection, testing and market launch at the "back" end.  Some firms excel at the first, more creative capabilities.  Some firms excel at the latter, more executional capabilities.  The really innovative firms excel at both.  If there is a secret to innovation, it is that the two capabilities must both be optimized and working in synch.  These two capabilities are often diametrically opposed, as "creative" types aren't good at execution and process-oriented folks aren't good at creativity and insight.  Simply because your firm is operationally strong doesn't by definition mean it must be weak from a creativity standpoint.  These are learnable, acquirable skills!  And the same is true in reverse. 

Sorry to say that there are no innovation secrets.  All of the information you need was developed by Edison, and Osborn, and a host of other thinkers early in the 20th century.  Later work by Christensen et al has simply extended their work.  Everything you need to know is on display at your library.  There is no list of innovation secrets on the back of the Declaration of Independence, or a Rosetta stone waiting to be deciphered.  The information, as they say, is "out there".  There are no hidden secrets to dramatically reduce the effort associated with an innovation project.  If there were, don't you think we'd all place less emphasis on innovation?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:18 AM


Blogger Unknown said...

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