Does “process” kill innovation?

Reading Steve Blank is always a pleasure. Not only is he among the world’s best scholars of corporate innovation; his ability to explain complex things in a simple language is unparallel.

Blank’s recent HBR piece, “Why Companies Do ‘Innovation Theater’ Instead of Actual Innovation,” is no exception. He persuasively argues that as large organizations face continuous disruption, their ability to innovate is no more an “add-on”; it’s their way to survival. And yet, they consistently fail to innovate.

The reason, as Blank sees it, is that while transforming from ambitious startups bubbling with innovative ideas into mature commercial entities, organizations build “processes.” Although processes diminish the overall risk for an organization to malfunction, each layer of the process reduces the organizational agility and its responsiveness to new threats and opportunities. Eventually, the organizations begin to value “process” over the “product” – and that kills innovation.

At this point, corporate innovation becomes “innovation theater,” a set of “activities” that may build and shape culture but fail to come up with viable products. (This idea is very close to my heart: back in 2015, I fretted that organizations were faking innovation.)

While Blank’s explanation of what is wrong with innovation is right on point, as usual, I was surprised by his uncharacteristic reluctance to propose ways to address the problem. Sure, Blank argues that innovation activities and processes should be part of an overall plan, and his idea of an Innovation Doctrine is an intriguing one, however vaguely articulated.

At the same time, I’d disagree with Blank that processes as such hurt innovation. In my opinion, corporate innovation suffers not from the overabundance of processes but, quite to the contrary, from the paucity of them. We still don’t have a sustainable process to handle the proverbial “innovation funnel,” to move promising inventions and discoveries all the way from the front end of innovation to its back end.

That’s what we need to focus on. And we must hurry up, as the United States is losing its place at the top of the global innovation indexes. There is no time to waste.

 The image created by Tatiana Ivanov

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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