This isn’t the Top 10 Excuses for Not Investing in Innovation
I’ve been meaning to write this article for more than a year, after a dialog with the CEO of a leading online travel site where he said that the company wasn’t focused on innovation, that it wasn’t the right time to focus on innovation. This is despite the fact that the organization lists innovation as one of the company’s core values on its posters for employees pinned up around the corporate headquarters (and even painted on the walls).
As a champion of innovation this of course gave me pause.
After all, I travel the world delivering innovation keynotes and teaching innovation masterclasses to hundreds of people at a time, espousing that in today’s environment of rapid change that establishing a sustainable innovation capability is the only way to maintain your competitive advantage and ultimately the health of your business.
His comment, and the absolute certainty with which he delivered it, made me wonder if there might be times when INNOVATION IS A DUMB IDEA.
The CEO’s rationale was that his predecessor had spent freely chasing bright shiny technology objects to the detriment of the business’ core technology infrastructure. And instead of social media or these other bright shiny technology objects delivering new competitive advantage, they actually left the business with a core infrastructure that daily was becoming less capable than the competition at delivering the core elements of value that customers expect from an online travel site.
So, he felt that innovation would be a distraction to the business. Instead he wanted every single resource of the organization marshaled to modernize and stabilize the core technology of their online business to deliver great core value for customers, or there would be gradually fewer customers to deliver value to.
This reminded me of the Pareto principle (the 80/20 rule) because in some ways not only does the core business fund your innovation investments, but it is through continued excellence in delivery of the core value that prevents your organization from quickly going out of business (or losing market share). Meanwhile, through innovation excellence in the other 20% you either prevent the organization from slowly going out of business (or losing market share) or grow your business or market share.
So let’s be clear, you WILL still go out of business if you don’t at some point innovate and reinvigorate your products and services, but I will cede that failure to maintain operational excellence is a faster path to failure than falling short of innovation excellence.
And obviously, the healthier the firm is, the more money it can afford to allocate to innovation. Less obvious is that the best time to invest in innovation is when you feel like you don’t need it, because:
A. Innovation takes time and so you need to invest in advance of inevitable slowing sales
B. You can also invest in innovations that deepen your operational excellence
If you wait too long to invest in innovation, or if you invest in chasing bright, shiny technologies instead of focusing on solving pre-existing customer problems, you end up in a situation like this online travel company. Customers ultimately drive innovation, not technology.
There are of course other times where instead of ceding your innovation investments to focus on the core business, you actually decide to take money away from the core business and in a sense consciously cede it to the competition. The goal here is to increase your investments into innovations that will help your organization jump back into a stronger competitive position on the next curve. But few companies are able to make this work.
So, now you’ll fully understand the reasons behind #1 on my list of the Top 10 Reasons Not to Innovate:
1. Your main business is broken
We took a detailed look at this topic above.
2. Lack of commitment to innovation
If your organization isn’t committed to innovation for the long-term, don’t bother. Innovation isn’t free, it doesn’t happen overnight, and many ideas may become interesting inventions, but don’t end up being valuable innovations in the marketplace. Plus, employees can see right through executive teams that aren’t truly committed to innovation.
3. No common language of innovation
The term “innovation” means different things to different people. Ask 100 people, you’ll get 100 different definitions. So, after getting commitment to innovation, define what innovation means for the organization, and as I speak about in my five-star book Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire, you must also create an innovation vision, strategy, and goals that ideally are formed with the organization’s vision, strategy, and goals in mind.
4. Lack of trust in the organization
Trust is fundamental to the success of any formal approach to innovation. If trust is currently broken in your organization, you must begin repairing that first. Then, and only then, can you start soliciting innovation ideas from your employees. In order to maintain trust (which is very fragile), you must also have all of the pieces in place to show people that ideas are being seriously considered and that that there is a process for choosing, funding, and developing them.
5. Don’t know how to innovate (or don’t know where to start)
Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire was designed to help organizations identify and remove barriers to innovation, but it also serves as a great innovation primer. Download it onto your Kindle, get it at your library, or get a hardcover from your favorite book seller. In addition, there are over 7,000 articles here on Innovation Excellence from over 400 contributing authors that can help you understand where to begin, and our directory of consultants provides some individuals and companies that can help. Finally, if you are a new innovation leader you should join our Linkedin group and reach out to some of your innovation management peers and ask them how they got started.
6. Innovation readiness down through the organization is lacking
It’s great when executives get religion and not only commit to innovation, but also make it a priority. But your employees must also be ready to innovate, and this requires education (see #5) and communications (see #3 and #4) around not just what innovation is, but why it is important. If your employees don’t understand what innovation is and why it is important to the continued success of the organization, you may be surprised to find that they sit on the sidelines. You wouldn’t expect the organization to go from 0 to 60 mph on its ability to utilize the principles of Lean, Agile, or Six Sigma. Innovation requires an investment in organizational capability and readiness too.
7. Lack of a unique, valuable customer insight
Brainstorming doesn’t drive innovation. Ideas don’t lead to innovation success. Innovation success is determined by customers voting with their feet and their wallets, and the only way that you get them to move either is by developing a new solution to a problem that delivers more value than every existing alternative. Innovation comes from connecting with customers in meaningful ways, and this requires that you develop a unique, valuable customer insight before you even begin generating ideas (possibly even co-creating with customers). Opening up and providing access to ethnographic research, behavioral data, and other sources of inspiration is a good place to start.
8. Can’t cope with the changes required
Committing to building an innovation capability often requires changes to organizational structure, rewards and recognition, budgeting, executive compensation, business unit goals, and other structural elements that the organization may not be ready for. Additionally, sometimes the organization isn’t capable of moving fast enough to realize the market potential of the innovations they are likely to create. In fast moving consumer goods this is can be a real problem, and so companies often must simultaneously accelerate the pace of change in their organization, identify structural impediments, find new ways to design and implement experiments to quickly prove or disprove assumptions or keys to success. I’m currently refining a change planning toolkit for public release and introduction in my new book on organizational change for Palgrave Macmillan. You can get involved with this project here.
9. ROI higher on improvements than innovation
Not all innovations are equal and your innovation pipeline may not always be full of potential innovations likely to scale to a level outpacing the ROI achievable on improvements ideas focused on your current slate of products and services. This reason is often used as an excuse, by executives not committed to innovation, for not funding potential innovations. This makes including it here hard for me to do. But, the fact is that there are times when this is a valid reason not to innovate. Sometimes innovation pipelines go dry for a little while, and usually this means that you haven’t been spending as much time with customers or scanning the landscape as you should have. You must restart these efforts immediately.
10. Too Early (customers not ready, technology not ready to scale) or Tipping Point Not Identified
It is possible to come up with a great potential innovation, but be too early. Compaq developed a hard disk based mp3 player years before Apple launched the iPod, but smartly chose not to launch it. Without the elegant navigation and music organization capabilities it would have certainly failed. The iPod itself didn’t take off until THREE YEARS after its launch (coinciding with the launch of the Windows version of iTunes). Online car services floated around for years, but customers weren’t ready to try them at scale until Uber added a little map showing nearby available cars and started to generate positive word of mouth. Airbnb didn’t invent the vacation rental by owner market but they came out of nowhere against established players and grew the market by asking people to question their lodging assumptions and offering people the ability to rent a spot on someone’s couch. One final example. The Apple TV launched in 2007 (EIGHT YEARS AGO) as a hobby, and while the Apple TV is shipping larger volumes today than eight years ago, it has failed to move the ecosystem as fast as they were able to in the mobile carrier/handset space. Whether HBO Now exclusively is the tipping point for a power shift in the television industry from cable/satellite providers (think mobile service providers) to the television stations (think mobile app makers), remains to be seen.
So there you have it, the Top 10 Reasons Not to Innovate. I’ll now turn around and expose my back so my fellow innovation authors, bloggers, and consultants can notch and loose their arrows in opposition to this heretical idea.
Or, a less painful way to voice your opinion (at least for me), would be for you to utilize the comments section to state your opinions in support or opposition to the idea that innovation is not always a smart idea.
Are there other valid reasons why a company should choose not to innovate?
Not excuses to use to oppose innovation, but real situations where innovation is actually a dumb idea?
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Braden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, builds sustainable innovation cultures, and tools for creating successful change. He is the author of the five-star book Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire and the creator of the revolutionary new Change Planning Toolkit™. Follow him on Twitter (@innovate) and Linkedin.