The Big Myth of Innovation

The Big Myth of InnovationFor my last article for the American Express OPEN Forum I thought I would go out with a bang and attack a controversial topic, something that people are starting to believe as an empirical truth. Something that I don’t believe has to be true.

It seems like most people are starting to believe that it is inevitable that formal innovation efforts begin with high energy and wane over time. And that this is true even if you’ve built robust innovation processes and have strong support for innovation at all levels of an organization.

I must say that what many people are portraying as inevitability is a myth, and falls prey to the age old quote:

“There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

The reason why we have this myth is that people misinterpret a key artifact of most formal innovation processes as a representation of reality. The artifact in question is that typically when organizations begin a formal innovation effort and start soliciting ideas from their employees or even their suppliers, partners or customers, they get a huge spike in the numbers of ideas at the beginning and then the volume of submitted ideas tapers off over time.

The reality is that when you begin a formal innovation effort and begin soliciting ideas, there is a backlog of ideas just waiting for an outlet to input them into. A few weeks ago I wrote an article called What’s in Your Innovation Black Book? that describes the mechanics of this artifact in detail. In countering this myth I would like to offer an alternative suggestion – a potentially controversial one.

Innovation efforts do not naturally start with high energy and wane over time as if ideas equals energy. In fact, organizations with robust innovation efforts and really great communications and follow-through around their efforts will experience quite the opposite.

People are naturally skeptical, and while the backlog of ideas may trick you into believing that innovation energy begins high and naturally falls, in fact innovation energy begins low (but noisy) and – with proven follow-through and consistent commitment – organizations can actually RAISE the innovation energy in their organization over time. Walking the walk and earning people’s trust is how you make continuous innovation possible and it makes obtaining innovation excellence a worthy and achievable goal.

Also, when you talk about the innovation energy in an organization, idea generation is only part of the story, and often the only part that people measure. The truth is that there are huge, important opportunities for people to get involved with evolving ideas and making them stronger before they reach the idea-evaluation stage.

When you look deeper into organizations successfully pursuing innovation excellence, you’ll find the energy that gets applied towards the evolution of ideas actually increases over time in organizations with well-organized, well-communicated and well-executed innovation programs. This is because as people begin to believe that their organization’s innovation efforts are not just a gimmick, the formal innovation program begins to unlock the energy of people who aren’t necessarily great at coming up with ideas, but who do have a lot to offer when it comes to evolving and developing them.

When it comes to innovation, don’t get distracted by the easy-to-measure idea generation part of the process.

If you truly want to become excellent at innovation, focus your efforts on not only unlocking the key customer insights that help generate ideas, but also on building a believable story for your employees, partners, suppliers, etc. about how you are seriously pursuing innovation excellence in your organization as your new way of doing business. Then focus on how you communicate not only your commitment to becoming excellent at innovation as an organization, but also on how you are following through on all of your talk. If you do this well, then you will face not a decreasing amount of energy for innovation over time, but instead an energy level that is sustainable, enjoyable and powerful.

So, instead of focusing on idea generation, focus on energy generation, and you will be one step closer to achieving innovation excellence in your organization.

This post may also be viewed on the American Express OPEN Forum Idea Hub.

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Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B pull marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is currently advising an early-stage fashion startup making jewelry for your hair and is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.

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2 Responses to The Big Myth of Innovation

  1. Jon D Harper says:

    While I agree with your assessment of innovation development energy I also find there is a cultural component that companies don’t take seriously when developing their innovation process. Insights and ideas by way of employee involvement is fantastic but is a shotgun approach which can often overwhelm or find cracks in the system designed to manage innovation concepts. I find it more often that innovation wanes when the association of innovation praise is not taughted throughout the organization, in both successes and failures. A lot of companies want the wins, but frankly, are not mature enough to handle the losses in a similar fashion, which often sparks the win they were seeking in the first place! Innovation can be a strong differentiating factor within the market, if done well and capitalized on by the company in a way that grows the culture. But it can also be a spiraling divide amongst employees and management if not aligned correctly. Great article!

  2. sachin kundu says:

    Yes Braden totally agree. Generating ideas is important, but even more so is getting those ideas done. That is why I suggest that discovering innovators is more important than discovering ideas.

    A good innovation program makes it easier to execute and implement ideas as quickly and as cheaply as possible. When execution is emphasized it leads to focus on getting things done, rather than brain dump of immature ideas.

    A well managed innovation program is not a falling curve but a constant one.

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