“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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