Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When innovation becomes a dirty word

"Don't use the word innovation" I was advised recently by a business leader, "find a different word". That set me thinking. Why is it that innovation can become a dirty word for some companies? And what can you do about it?

An obvious reason is that a recent innovation initiative has failed to deliver what was expected. Sounds logical perhaps. I think it a big danger sign that points to a culture that cannot easily deal with failure, let alone accept it. Companies have to become used to trying out lots of ideas and expecting many to not make it. Try lots of simple concepts and paper prototypes, test with customers and video their response. For every one concept that they were enthusiastic about, present two they hated alongside it.

Perhaps the company has a narrow view of innovation, seeing it as only new product development. If the pipeline is full, who needs more? Innovation for me is about thinking differently about EVERYTHING you do as a person and as a company. Innovation never sleeps! Try an innovation session around business models or how you deliver your products or even how you do your budgeting.

Innovation can become institutionalized. Fossilized into a set of formal processes, often with specific people accountable for parts of the process. I believe you have to innovate the way you innovate. Throw out that old process and think up a fresh one! Run sessions on how to innovate better, what can we do to improve the way we do it?

In times of (economic) crisis it seems obvious to cut back on spending, batten down the hatches. Customers stop buying. Employees are afraid of losing their jobs. Not a time for innovation you might think. WRONG. History shows that harsh recessions are also periods of exceptional entrepreneurial vigour. DuPont developed synthetic rubber in 1930 and Nylon in 1934. EMI was launched in 1931. Thomas Edison set up General Electric in the "long depression" of 1870's. Microsoft and Apple started up in the early 1970's amid the soaring oil prices. For some great tips on innovating when your company is on a diet, try Skinny Innovation from ?WhatIf!

Innovation can be seen as whacky, messing around at the edge and not core to our business, where it is most needed. I strongly believe innovation must be edgy, you cannot think unthinkable thoughts without a hint of revolution. It has to be applied to real problems though. Innovation for innovation's sake might be fun but it doesn't lead anywhere. It takes bravery to be edgy especially in a corporate environment. Try to find a mentor who will support you and protect you. Think about what's in it for you - are you being brave towards yourself? Do be careful making innovation all about you though - innovation is all about the insights, the ideas and what is done with them.

If all else fails then I recommend Stealth Innovation: being innovative in everything you do and letting you behaviour influence those around you. Here's some tips:
Concentrate on being insightful and sharing those insights with your colleagues. Why not start every presentation or report you do with an insightful fact? Be enthusiastic: "i found this amazing fact and thought you might like to hear it"
Find related worlds: other companies in different sectors but with similar challenges to your own. Share the case study and help your colleagues see the connection. Close off your emails with "hope this helps"
Share your ideas! Write an occasional "whacky idea" email to your boss but don't follow it up, wait until she does. Then talk about all the ways to make that idea real.
Seize every opportunity to do things differently. If you are "lumbered" with arranging the next steering committee meeting, then do something different. Explain why at the meeting but don't ask for permission beforehand. Ask for feedback. Volunteer for an action item then get it down in a new way "I just thought I'd try to do it in a different way for a change"
It is tough doing this alone so try to find some like-minded people, a Stealth Innovation self-help group. Share your frustrations and your little victories with the group.

If you do this I think you will find that people will start to seek you out and ask you to help with their problems. You are "so creative" they will say, "you always seem to have ideas that are refreshingly different". And I think you'll have fun too.


  1. Hi Jonathan, I think you're spot on with this article. I really like your stealth innovation tips - especially: 'I just thought I'd try to do it in a different way for a change' - magic words to get out of any situation!

    I'm especially interested in your 'innovation for innovation's sake' point and why you say 'when innovation is done in this way it doesn't lead anywhere'?

    This is increasingly becoming a key point as many organisations are now finding themselves contractually obliged to innovate or innovate on demand. I'm guessing you mean before innovative thinking is applied someone must have already had an idea of what the innovation is hoping to address.. which is an interesting angle in relation to creative freedom.

    Specifying the parameters for innovation in this way could prevent the more free thinkers from pushing those boundaries & stifle the real disruptive innovations... Linked to this is an often-quoted quote from Henry Ford when he said 'if I'd asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse'

    My current focus is whose responsibility innovation should be in organisations - would love to hear your thoughts on that...

  2. Thanks Will

    I strongly believe innovation has to be fun. The problem is that there is still a widespread feeling in traditional companies that if it is fun then it must be frivolous. The danger then is that the fun obscures the ideas.

    One way to break this might be to take some really unpromising, awful problem that has bugged the company for years and apply some fun innovation to it.

    I don't think parameters for innovation necessarily prevent free thinkers from pushing boundaries and disrupting.

    Take the example of the 70-20-10 "rule" at Google. 70% of a Googler's time is spent on projects (usually search), 20% of the time you discuss with your boss what other non-project stuff to work on (usually search-related), and 10% of a Googler's time is to do what they like.

    This feels like freedom but it is actually a gilded-cage. Google encourages free thinking all the time, but it gives some guidance on the direction of that thinking, still leaving some space for disruption.

    This approach can help to anchor innovation into a company culture.

    I'll do some thinking on who is responsible for innovation in an organisation, and post soon.

    Thanks again for your comments