Nine lies about innovation
Ewoud Liberg, 3 December 2021
In my archive I recently found an interesting text: ‘seven lies about innovation’. Handed out to me about fifteen years ago during an innovation meeting. Printed on a white sheet of paper without further information. The text is still strong and accessible. It provides clarity on the fundamental principles of effective innovation. I have searched for the author of the seven lies, but I was not able to find him or her. If the author contacts me, naturally I am happy to include the author’s name in this article. In the meantime I have added two to the list: lies 8 and 9.
For there is a considerable collection of big and small lies going around about the topic of innovation. Many of these lies are caused by fear of the unknown and a lack of concrete experience with serious innovation and creativity. In this article I try to disprove the most obstinate lies. Perhaps this will help you to take the plunge and get started with innovation as well!
Innovation depends on chance
It is true that many inventions were preceded by a chance inspiration or event. Yet it is often too much to say that these coincidences have single-handedly brought about the innovation. Millions of apples have fallen from trees before Newton formulated his law of gravity. Innovation is in the eye of the beholder. To be set on the track of an innovation by a chance inspiration requires that the person in question already had knowledge of the limits of what is possible, and an unconscious desire to transcend these limits. Innovation is not based on chance. Innovation is based on the desire for something useful and new.
Innovation is the field of marketing, research and development
Marketing and R&D are responsible for evaluating the range of products and services and for coming up with new things if necessary. So innovation is certainly a task of the Marketing and R&D departments. But innovation is not exclusively the field of these departments. Every employee in an organisation has ideas with which he/she could improve their own work or the work of others. However, the problem is that not every employee has a place to go to with his/her ideas, that these ideas are often not taken seriously, and that definitely no time or money is made available to further develop and implement these ideas. The ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome still rules in many organisations, although valuable innovations can come out of any part of the organisation. Take a department like Accounting. Surely it is everyone’s worst nightmare for the accounting employees to engage in ‘creative’ bookkeeping. Yet someone once thought of the principle of Activity Based Costing, and in so doing, provided their business with a great advantage compared to all other companies, and not just the ones in their own industry.
Ideas are the key for innovation
‘Our employees are simply not coming up with ideas. Perhaps we don’t have any ideas at all.’ It is extraordinary how often this is still claimed. The reality is that there are heaps of ideas in every organisation that the (senior) management is unaware of. It seems as if there are two sides in an organisation. On one side, ideas are created, and on the other side people are busy with optimising what already exists. It is remarkable how often the management is on the second side. One part of the solution is having a good system for managing ideas, which stimulates expressing and learning about each other’s ideas. Another part of the solution is having a good innovation process, so that ideas can be effectively turned into decision making and action.
Innovation is risky
As with every prototype, the risks of innovation can be minimized before scaling up. Face the market confrontation early on, conduct limited experiments, monitor the results daily, adjust regularly and do not hesitate to discontinue experiments which do not bring the expected results. Vary the innovation portfolio to limit risks. And consider that it may be even more risky not to innovate.
Innovation means a radical break with the past
The opposite is true. Innovation nearly always takes place in an evolutionary way, that is: building on what is already existing. It comes from the existing strategic core abilities and achievements of an organisation.
Creative thinking is for Gyro Gearloose and MacGyver types
This misconception results from a lack of knowledge of the theory of creative thinking. It is thought that only creative types and the more rebellious employees have the mental freedom needed to come up with new ideas. However, creative thinking is based on formal techniques which can be applied in a highly disciplined way. Anyone can learn to think creatively, simply by learning the methods, techniques and procedures which lead to generating new ideas. Creativity is not an art but a skill.
A great breakthrough requires a golden idea
‘The golden idea’, that is the idea the business grew out of. ‘We need a new golden idea that is just as big.’ The difficulty is that in searching for this golden idea, the idea in question will probably get run over. There is nothing wrong with aimin an innovation strategy at revolutionary ideas with high potential. Yet, the problem often is that it makes people blind to smaller ideas which are already there. Suppose that submitted ideas and proposals systematically receive the reply: ‘We’re sorry, but your idea is not revolutionary enough.’ Then the steam of ideas will quickly dry up. The truth is that the people coming up with the ideas are more important than the ideas themselves. Listen to the small ideas, and they will give you the big ideas. Besides, how can you know which idea will eventually lead to that big breakthrough?
Logic takes you from A to B, creativity takes you everywhere
Innovation requires a critical and inquisitive attitude. So be the critical and inquisitive company detective instead of the journalist. The journalist writes down what he is told and assumes this is true. A detective investigates and is continuously looking for facts and evidence. Therefore you will have to be objective and critical. Innovation is no different! Thinking differently and creativity also certainly play a role. Without creativity and without mental resilience you definitely will not get there. Yet the basis is that you will have to start out with a concrete assignment with a solid framework and conditions and that you need to return with a solid financially viable business. Companies are not susceptible to chatter, opinions, feelings and a good-looking hipster with coffee who says anything you can imagine is possible.
Innovation requires as much freedom as possible
Many people think that anything should be allowed on the road to an innovation, that there should not be any limits and you need to give everyone freedom. A successful innovation programme is well-organized, like any other successful programme. It has a concrete start, goals and planning, as well as a concrete end for each phase. Deadlines and intermediate results need to be met. It is therefore highly important to timebox each step. Delay and disorganisation take the speed out of the programme and make energy disappear. A framework is needed to be able to be creative. A framework challenges and inspires!
Let me know if you come across any more interesting lies about innovation. I would like to hear them.
Are you facing an interesting challenge, do you not want to be on your own or do you need help? I would like to discuss it with you.
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