Monday, July 25, 2011

When will the innovation fad end?

I suspect that many people who've been around the block a few times are good at spotting fads.  Fads come in all shapes and sizes, and touch our lives in a number of ways.  One of my favorite fads was the "Pet Rock" - literally a rock with eyes glued on it.  But during the Pet Rock craze there were thousands of people lining up to buy pet rocks.  People were caught up in the humor and whimsy of a "pet rock" and wanted to be part of the joke.

Fads exist in consumer markets, yes, but also in management circles.  For example, I think job performance reviews have been subject to a number of fads, from the self-evaluation to the 360 evaluation.  In each of these attempts to change or augment the standard job appraisal, there is some core kernel of value, but the additional fluff that often arrives with a new concept detracts from the value.  Executives and businesses are subject to fads, just like consumers.  That knowledge, and the experience of acknowledging and riding out fads, has meant that many people are cynical about innovation.

You see, many executives want to align to what's current, or what appears important, in the press.  If other firms seem to acquire benefits from being "innovative", then more and more executives and firms will claim to be "innovative".  Yet in many heart of hearts, most are simply waiting for the innovation fad to end.  They are convinced that like 360 degree job reviews, Malcolm Baldrige awards and Cabbage Patch dolls that innovation will run its course.  In a few years good thinking, logical people will all look at our collection of innovation work and chuckle, just as we do with our Pet Rocks.  What were we thinking, they'll ask themselves.  Many of our current executives are certain that innovation is just a passing fad, and while some attention must be paid, the less the better.

Here's the issue:  innovation has the appearance of a fad, since many individuals and organizations are rushing to join the bandwagon.  But unlike Cabbage Patch dolls, Pet Rocks or bell bottoms, innovation does something that many fads don't:  add value.  At the end of the Pet Rock fad, the person who acquired a Pet Rock had a river pebble with eyes glued on, and was out $10.  The underlying needs for innovation aren't driven by fashion, but by increasing consumer demand and expectation, and increasing competition.  If a firm invests in innovation capabilities, they'll be able to innovate consistently and repeatedly.  That's an investment of great value.

Meanwhile, the individuals who believe innovation is a fad will pay some lip service to innovation, attempt a project or two to demonstrate their bona fides, and wait patiently for the fad to end.  Don't get me wrong - many of the hucksters who thrive on a fast buck will fall away as their inability to deliver value will be exposed.  But that doesn't mean that innovation is unnecessary or a fad.  No, because the underlying drivers that increase the need for innovation aren't short-term and aren't based on passing fashion or whim.  The drivers for innovation are factors that are simply accelerating: growing consumer demand, an expectation of new products and services, rising global trade and the increasing knowledge of consumers.  These factors reduce expected product life and increase competition.  Innovation is merely the means to address the increased demand and to stay relevant with consumers.

Innovation still suffers from an attitude that describes innovation as "important but not urgent".  That's because many executives prefer to solve short term issues through cost cutting, waiting for the innovation fad to die out, to see what's next.  Actually, innovation is both important and urgent, because of the pace of change and the persistence of change.  Until executives and managers grasp the underlying currents that propel innovation and realize that it is the tool to sustain the new normal, rather than a passing fad, innovation will often be considered a side-show to the real work of the organization.

There will come a time, in the not too distant future, when executives realize that innovation isn't a fad, but a set of tools and techniques to help increase growth and differentiation in a market that is rapidly changing.  And in the immortal words of Warren Buffet, that's when we'll know who has been swimming without any trunks.  Because the executives who consider innovation a fad will be exposed.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:15 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

real innivation or 'authentic innovation' is not a fad. It is rooted in an over-arching idea of how it serves a need beyond the pure idea of 'newness.' True innovation is linked to bettering our world, not corporate spreadsheets or stockholder returns. If there was ever an opportunity for innovation it is now, at all levels, from political ideation to products and services. If we are to call this a fad, God help us!!!! We are truly doomed and nature will survive but man will not .

7:51 PM  
Anonymous Trademark Application said...

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11:15 PM  
Anonymous John W Lewis said...

Well said, and such an important point!

Innovation, and particularly the management of innovation, is receiving considerable attention because it is, itself, new to many people and organizations. It is much more important than a fad.

But how are objective sceptical observers to know that? What is a fad? Presumably, a fad is a fad until it is not a fad!

When is that? Perhaps, when it "crosses the chasm"!

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe innovation is here to stay but the innovation "fads" will come and go. Quick fix "copy the next guy" innovation programs without culture change is the "fad". It was the same with TQM and Six Sigma. Innovation is no better or worse as these "fads" also added value. They all have merit but when the "program" becomes the be and end all and is not properly integrated in the organization's strategy or metrics for sustainability, the odds are great it will die out and be considered a fad. As I think Edison said, "Innovation is 99% perspiration". Until executives are willing to sweat, the flavor of the month will prevail.

1:34 PM  
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