A few days ago a reporter for Investor’s Business Daily contacted me by email, asking several questions about innovation. I didn’t have the time to answer all of them, so I asked him what he really wanted to know. He replied that what he really wanted was a bottom line answer to the question of what makes the most difference in a company’s ability to innovate. As is my inclination, I reframe such questions to be about what isn’t there, versus what is.
Here’s my reply:
If I think about “why Johnny can’t innovate,” i.e. the things that prevent a company from cultivating a companywide culture of innovation, it would come down to a half-dozen things:
1. Innovation identity crisis.
If you assume that the consultants at Booz & Co are correct, there are perhaps three distinct approaches to innovation: needs-based, market-driven, and tech-centered. The first is the “humanist” approach good designers take. The second is the “capitalist” approach…the fast followers that optimize…like a Hyundai, or in many respects Toyota. They capitalize on Clayton Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma,” quickly copying and even improving on game-changing innovations as they hit the market. The third is the “technologist” approach, like an Apple. Many big companies simply don’t know or can’t easily conceptualize which of these categories they fall into, or should fall into, given their bench strength. They end up “kitchen-sinking” it, scattering and squandering their attention and efforts.
2. Unclear innovation strategy.
Trying to be all things to all people just doesn’t work, and big outfits have a tough time articulating the answers to the questions my friend Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School and coauthor of Playing to Win, likes to ask: given your chosen approach, where will you play and how will you win?. It’s a question of focus, which is something different (albeit a nuanced difference) than prioritization. It’s the ability to identify what you’re going to say NO to. Steve Jobs was great at this, and you’re now seeing the clear picture under his rule become blurry. He said he was always proudest of the thousands of things Apple said no to.
3. Inaccessible definition of innovation.
When I speak to groups I ask them to show their hands if they consider themselves good problem solvers. All hands raise. I ask for a show of hands for the learners. All hands up. Then I ask the true innovators to raise their hands. Less than 5% raise their hands. It’s because people hear innovation and think: gizmo. Or app. Or code. Or product. Or service. Or feature. They think of innovation as a noun rather than a verb. Best definition of innovation I’ve ever heard is by JetBlue’s founder David Neeleman: “Innovation is figuring how to do something better than it’s ever been done before.” Dirt simple, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO or administrative assistant…you can innovate. Without the clear definition of what’s considered innovation, you can’t ask people to innovate and expect an intelligent response.
4. No common methodology.
We’re not taught in school to innovate. Just the opposite. The very effective ethos of curiosity we’re born with and utilize during our first 5 years of existence–which is all about observation, experimentation, and play–gets schooled out of us. We’re taught to get the right answer for the teacher. Then the right answer for the boss. We lose our natural born capacity to learn and create new knowledge. So you have to unlearn the ways of business execution and reteach what came naturally: define a problem by observing or experiencing it, guessing how to solve it, creating a solution based on that guess, and quickly seeing if what you assumed might work actually does. Without a common methodology, everything is ad hoc, hit or miss.
5. Methodology doesn’t feature experimentation.
Beyond not having a common method, you’ll often find the de facto “innovation method” in reality being mostly an idea execution process, rather than a more scientific one. The mindset can’t be “I know what will work and I’m going to ensure it does.” It has to be “I think this may work so let me try it out.” Scientists work on hypotheses, which is a fancy term for guesswork. If people aren’t getting their hands dirty out in the field with users and customers, testing early low-fidelity prototypes and adjusting a solution, they won’t be able to truly innovate. For some reason, the hardest thing for those charged with innovation is get out of the office, out of their data reports, and do what the Japanese call genchi genbutsu (go look, go see): muck about with customers and users. I learned how important it is to do this while working with Toyota. Innovation is a contact sport. So beware the pretty process that looks sterile and linear rather than loopy and chaotic.
6. Mismatched talent-to-task fit.
Companies love to move “high potential managers” into roles related to innovation. Bad move. Those folks are great at plans and budgets. They’re great at execution. But what do you think they’re going to do when you move them into the messy and uncertain world of creating something new? They’re going to try to plan, budget, and execute. Innovation is about divergence, rapid prototyping, testing and failure. Big outfits might go to school on Lockheed’s Skunk Works…Steve Jobs sure did when he broke away from Apple to start Macintosh. You have to do what Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s maverick Chief Engineer did: break away from the main operation, steal away the hip thinkers that many many consider the lunatic fringe, and set up shop in secrecy to essentially get back to the garage, with the charge being to design a working prototype under a few intelligent constraints. If you don’t, can’t or won’t, you’ll end up hiring an outside firm that’s set up to innovate for you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just doesn’t help your efforts to build innovation competency. It allows people to stay in their power zone of planning, budgeting, and executing.
All these things are required for a culture of innovation to flourish. That’s why innovation is so simple yet so hard. Hope this helps, and good luck with your article!
I’m not sure if he’ll use any of it, but I hope he does.
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Matthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.