Monday, March 09, 2015

Don't rock the boat innovation

It's strange how music, songs and lyrics stick with you and take on important meanings.  In one of my presentations for my book Relentless Innovation I have a slide that speaks to the factors that shape our current business environment.  The slide simply reads "What's going on" and every time I present it at a client site or for a speaking engagement I think Marvin Gaye should be singing in the background.  Music and its lyrics have an interesting power, one we should learn to engage more.

Recently, in an idea generation session with a client, I found myself humming another song.  This time it was "Don't rock the boat" by The Hues Corporation.  Occasionally I turn to this song and its lyrics when I get frustrated by by clients who don't want to push the boundaries and discover disruptive innovation.

What is "Don't rock the boat" innovation?

Many innovation projects start out with such promise.  We're going to create new ideas!  Those ideas will lead to new profits or revenue!  We'll swamp the competition and gain market share!  Our CEO will get to go on stage in a turtleneck like Steve Jobs and everyone will listen!  And other really motivating stuff like that often surrounds the beginning of an innovation activity.  The question becomes:  what is the real anticipated outcome of an innovation activity?  Is it to create incremental solutions - extending what already exists, or to create powerful disruptive new products and services, which would lead to all the hubbub.  Far too often, like children at the dessert bar, the eyes are bigger than the stomach.  Creating too much disruption may require too much change or investment, or put an organization at risk if the ideas fail.  While many CEOs would love a really interesting new idea that drives differentiation and new profits, the executives often don't understand what it takes to create valuable new ideas that lead to differentiated products.

This means that the definition of innovation is left to the middle managers, who are efficiency experts, meaning they are really good at creating small improvements to existing products and services.  And, since they don't have a specific directive to go put a dent in the universe, a la Jobs, they revert to what they know best, what I call "don't rock the boat" innovation.

Don't rock the boat innovation follows all the best practices, engages people in research, conducts meaningful idea generation, and results in incremental products that are nice but not really all that differentiated or new.  That's because the managers and executives involved are really comfortable with the status quo, even though they know it needs to change.  But they don't have the permission, or directive, or funds, or resources, or time, to do something really different and new.  So, they can conduct innovation according to plan, but never put the existing processes or existing commitments at risk.  They are innovating, but they aren't going to "rock the boat".

What's the problem with "don't rock the boat"?

Is there really a problem with "don't rock the boat" innovation?  I'll stipulate that there are several problems.  First, don't rock the boat will NEVER lead to real benefits.  At best the ideas that a project with a "don't rock the boat" mentality will result in incremental new products at best.  Secondly, many innovation projects are begun with a lot of fanfare and promise, but are often cramped, dreary affairs that are limited in resources, scope and investments.  This dissonance creates cynicism, which is perhaps the kryptonite of innovation.  Further, a few projects or activities conducted within a "don't rock the boat" philosophy creates an inertia and an established way of doing things that make it difficult to ever break out of.

Think about this another way.  What happens to the individual who "rocks the boat"?  They are told to sit down, sit still, stop goofing around.  They are ridiculed into submission and will never rock the boat again, or may not even be allowed on the boat anymore.

Let's Rock the Boat

Instead, most corporations definitely need to "rock the boat" and perhaps even tip the boat over, to continue the lyrics.  Trying to innovate in a very limited and "safe" fashion sustains the status quo.  Only questioning the business model, offerings, pricing models, channels and other critical factors will create real difference.  To do this, innovation teams need a directive that must come from the top, and that must be constantly reinforced.  They need the right people on the team, the right investments and resources in order to do what is necessary, and the right amount of time and risk tolerance.  Without these factors in evidence, all innovation becomes a "don't rock the boat" exercise.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:38 AM


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