Are We Faking Innovation?

tumblr_nqx977yGTE1tubinno1_1280Let me begin with a couple of quotes.

“Innovation is like teenage sex; everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it!”

(Cris Beswick, Founder of the Future Shapers)

“Innovation is not delivering, our innovation systems are breaking down.”

 (Paul Hobcraft, innovation consultant)

Pretty strong words, eh? Cris Beswick’s quote comes from a recent survey on innovation sponsored by Wazoku, a UK collaborative idea management software company. 85% of respondents to this survey considered innovation important to their companies; yet 72% had no understanding of what innovation meant to them. 53% of surveyed managers were unaware of their organizations’ definition of innovation and how it fit with the overall corporate strategy; 38% of the managers said innovation wasn’t their job.

What’s going on? We all agree that innovation is a key to success in today’s business environment; our corporate leaders swear by it; we collects, build upon and vote for thousands of ideas (and even implement a few of them); we hold innovation hackathons and appoint Innovation Champions–and yet, our managers and rank-and-file employees, supposedly the driving force behind any innovation program, don’t even know what innovation means for them and their organizations.

Are we faking innovation? I think we’re. We fake innovation when we fail to discuss innovation strategy in the context of corporate strategy. We fake innovation when we launch an innovation program just because our competitor launched similar program a month ago. We fake innovation when we buy idea management software and start collecting “thousands of ideas” without prior thinking what we’re going to do with all these ideas. We fake innovation when we appoint a Chief Innovation Officer and give her neither line authority nor fixed budget (or a budget that can be promptly taken away in case of “emergency”). We fake innovation when we provide our employees with no rewards for participation in innovation activities (“because in our company, innovation is everyone’s job”).

In order to clean the accumulated rust off the innovation process, we must come back to the original meaning of innovation (no matter which precise words you use to define it): innovation is about creating value. No value, no innovation–it’s this simple. For as long as buying software or running innovation jams haven’t resulted in measurable improvements in corporate performance, this is not innovation (at least, not yet). Sure, value doesn’t always have to be defined in dollar terms; in the innovation equation, the dollar sign can be replaced with something else. But value can’t.

In more practical terms, companies must always begin with defining the place innovation occupies in their overall corporate strategy. Some strategic goals can be achieved by aggressive marketing, obsessive quality control or by optimizing internal processes. Innovation can be restricted to new product development only–and that’s fine.  But there is no reason to call innovation every business initiative aimed at hitting company’s revenue targets.

Equally important, innovation leaders must learn how to create a balanced innovation portfolio. There are various innovation “horizons,” each with different investment risks and terms of return. Optimal innovation portfolio must reflect real corporate needs, not a rush to join a popular–and often ill-understood–quest to “disruptive” innovation.

And we also ought to tone down our endless talks about culture of innovation. Yes, I know, sustainable innovation can’t be established without a profound cultural change. But I also know that you have to start running real, not faked, innovation programs to change people’s attitude toward innovation. As I argued before, you begin the innovation process with structure and process. And if you keep perfecting them, while communicating the results to the rest of your organization, sooner or later, structure and process will become culture.

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About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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11 Responses to Are We Faking Innovation?

  1. Innovation is completely misunderstood in the world of large corporations. I have seen it over and over again. Large organizations can only innovate if they embrace self destruction. Which is why they pay lip service to innovation, but practice it as little as possible. But it need not be this way, what is needed is a correct understanding of innovation. Innovation is about using old things in new ways. Large companies should start their innovation programs in the most under-performing sectors of their business, not with what is working just fine.

    If they did this then they would see the “value” you speak of. But large corporations are not currently looking at things correctly, they are attempting to innovate without first learning how to invent. Look at history and you will see: all inventors are innovators, but not many innovators are inventors. If large corporations really want to innovate they need to place scientists, engineers, and most of all inventors, into a more influential position within their organization.

    The reason for focusing on inventors first, and innovators second is simple. Inventors will lead you to innovation, innovation will not lead to invention. It’s bass ackwards, always has been, always will be.

    Best Regards, Jonathan Priluck

    • Hi Jonathan, thanks very much for your comment. I definitely agree with you that, quite unfortunately, large companies often turn to innovation only when they’re in troubles. Of course, this shouldn’t be this way.

      I’d however disagree with you on the relationship between invention and innovation. If you accept my logic that innovation is creating value, then not all inventors are innovators, but only those who created value out of their inventions. Now, I do agree that many innovators are inventors, and that fine: innovators can and should use other people’s inventions to create value.


  2. I am the Son of an entrepreneur and business leader in his time. Please take my word for it that the company he founded was the undisputed innovation leader in his sector in Europe. My father now is 83 and yes, times have changed. But I believe I have come to understand something about innovation by observing his behaviour and that of the people in this Company of 300 People in its heydays.

    Paul Hobcroft is right. What is the problemen?
    It is the perspective of what innovation is.

    Innovation is not about structure and proces. It is about time and timing.

    Time: give employees time to explore their talent. (Research sais that Lack of dedicated quality time in the No. 1 reason Why innovation fail.)Let them have fun.
    Timing: know when a market chance does, and when it does not return. Let them have luck.

    When failure is not an option, innovation is not a possibility.

    Peters and Waterman in search if excelence is outdated I know, but their research stands. They draw these or close lessons.

    • Hi Maarten, thanks much for your comment. I wish your Dad long and happy life, he deserves it! Sure, innovation today looks very different from the past; yet, we always had talented, dedicated and innovative people–just like you Dad.

      Best Regards,

  3. Eugene, you make THE most important point about innovation. I think everyone involved with innovation should use the definition you suggest. And I, too, have found the use of the word has multiple definitions depending upon the source. It is absolutely true real innovation, one that adds value, drives company growth, but innovation is often confused with word invention, the creation of something new. For example, a company often cites the number of patents it has produced as evidence that it is doing innovation. It is possible for a a company to have a number of inventions and not one of them could be an innovation the way we define it.

    I wouldn’t say there are many companies faking innovation. I suggest the ones that you suggest are faking it are more likely ignorant of the way we use the term and I would caution them that they should get with it soon or begin to wither relative to completion. Thanks for making the point!

  4. Hi Steve, thank you very much for your comment. You’re raising very important point: the lack of easily used and intuitive metrics to measure innovation. I completely agree with you that the number of patents can’t be used to measure innovation, and yet you see it everywhere. Some at least call this metrics “proxy”, but others don’t bother at all.

    I also agree with you that not so many companies FAKE innovation on purpose; as you say, they rather don’t quite understand what innovation is. But that doesn’t make the whole situation any easier: doing innovation wrong or even faking it creates an incredible amount of “noise” against which promoting real innovation becomes even more difficult.

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  7. Eugene,

    You wrote:
    “doing innovation wrong or even faking it creates an incredible amount of “noise” against which promoting real innovation becomes even more difficult.”

    I agree completely. The root of the problem, in the United States at least, lies with the USPTO and their core policies. The Patent Office in the United States reflects the values and the desires of the American People, therefore it is only natural that it should be inclusive and open as much as possible. This is what allows so much “noise” as you call it. It’s not a matter of wrong or right, it’s just a reflection of our culture.

    I have three US Patents, but 400 German/EU and worldwide Patents. I never managed to make a single penny off my US Patents and when they expired every major Aerospace Company in the United states took the same technology I had tried to sell them and used it for free. Most of the bigger companies were ethical enough to wait until the patents expired, most were not. The technology in question was simply too important to ignore,

    This is largely because most US Patents are noise. German patents are reviewed by German Government Scientists and Engineers of the highest caliber. Only a select few technologies, serious technologies that actually work and have both scientific and market relevance, get past German Patent Examiners. As a result, German Patents are respected and valued all over the world. Getting sued in German Court for patent infringement is something that not even the largest of global corporations can afford.

    Since I used to be vindictive, I sold an exclusive manufacturing license to Airbus in Germany. It ultimately resulted in Boeing having to move an entire assembly plant to another country, Spain I think it was. Karma can be a real bi*ch. Oh well, not my problem. :^)>

    Large corporations like Boeing can’t be held accountable by small companies, they know it, and they do whatever they want. In my case they infringed relentlessly, denied publicly, and then claimed credit for the invention (they even stole my company name) once enough time had passed. Of course anyone who bothers to do even the simplest fact check knows they did not invent “MicroLattice,” they just took Jonathan Aerospace Materials MicroPerf(TM) and copied it as best they could.

    The thing is, today every other Aerospace Company on the planet is using the technology and Boeing has done absolutely nothing with it. I guess I got the last laugh. Since it didn’t stop me from building a huge international company (6,000 employees in 23 countries), I’m no longer bitter or even slightly annoyed, it’s just funny, and a little bit sad. Nor did it stop the world from recognizing my invention or my contribution to Materials Science. Any academic knows where Lattice Block Materials (LBM) really came from. I was out there promoting it at MIT, Oxford, and Universities all over the world, long before Boeing started making their false claims.

    Best Regards, Jonathan North Priluck
    Founder and CEO, JAMCORP

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