Thursday, September 08, 2022

When innovation is most important

 I don't know why, but I am a huge fan of Monty Python.  Perhaps my favorite film of theirs is the Search for the Holy Grail.  If you've never seen it, take a few minutes to watch it now.  I'll wait.

Some of my favorite parts are the over-the-top instances in the film where, for instance, the Black Knight has his arm cut off but insists on fighting. He claims "it's only a flesh wound".  Or, perhaps, when the people collecting dead bodies come to collect an older gentleman, he insists that he's "not dead yet" and feeling better.  The movie is funny, silly and makes a point with its constant hammering of the inane and obvious points it wants to make.

Sometimes, in writing about innovation, I feel like Eric Idle or John Cleese, not because I am a great comedian or an actor, but I feel I need to make a point ad infinitum.  That is, make the same point over and over again, because for some reason the concepts and reality about innovation don't seem to stick. Therefore, we need to return to them again and again, hoping against hope that repetition will make them seem more realistic.  

What are the important concepts about innovation that we need to constantly revisit?  Well, they are legion, but here are a few:

  • Innovation is vital for a company's growth and differentiation
  • Innovation is not magic - it is a process that can be learned and implemented
  • Innovation requires risk and creates uncertainty
  • Not everyone is great at innovation
There are plenty more truths where those came from, but I only have a few minutes to write this post so I won't bore you with all the things you should know.  There is one other topic I do want to address today, and that is this:  like having a baby, there is no perfect time for innovation, but there are opportunities almost all the time.

When is innovation important?

If you have to ask this question, then you might want to check how fully you believe in the power and change that innovation can deliver.  Innovation is important when a company has a commanding lead and wants to stay ahead of its competition.  Innovation is important in a dog fight with competitors, when you've decided that matching feature for feature leads only to declining prices and margins.  Innovation is important when your firm is a new contender, entering an established market, seeking to gain traction and differentiation.

Innovation is important and valuable when you want to improve an existing product or process.  Innovation is important when you want to create new relationships with customers or to rethink a business model.

The better question, quite frankly, should be:  is there a time when my company should avoid innovation?  I thought long and hard about this question, and you won't be surprised to learn that I struggled to think about a situation where innovation would not contribute to good strategy or good thought, even if innovation is not the final answer.  For example:

A company could argue that innovation isn't necessary when margins are at risk and costs need to be eliminated.  However, I've seen companies use innovative thinking to shift the question or to rework processes and staffing models.

A company could argue that in the midst of an acquisition or merger that innovation isn't necessary, but I can imagine rethinking or revising business models, products or customer service in the middle of a merger to create better products and services.

Innovation deserts

If we agree that there are a few times when innovation is not necessary (I am still struggling with that possibility, but I'll allow it is possible) then we ought to ask:  If there are so few instances when it is not useful or necessary, why is it so rarely applied?  Why do we treat innovation like a fire alarm, stuck behind the "break glass in case of emergency" installation on the wall?

It's because we treat innovation as a black art, rather than a learnable and teachable capability, that we are so suspicious of its power.  If executives and corporate team members simply took the time to understand what innovation is, and how to do it effectively, I think we'd see a lot more innovation and in a lot more circumstances.  As it is, we act as if only a few people can innovate, and they are reading from secret tomes that the rest of us cannot understand.  Or, we act as if innovation is so uncertain and so risky that to attempt it is to put the company at risk.

There's no time like the present

In reality, there's no better time to innovate than right now.  If you are in a company that is trying to grow, trying to differentiate its products or services, trying to increase profits or simply change its business model or improve customer experience, you should be innovating.  And if you aren't doing any of the things I listed, then your company is slowly dying, and until you decide to thrive, innovation isn't going to help.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:37 PM


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