The Problem with Innovation

I am starting to feel a bit uneasy about the word innovation. Five or ten years ago it signaled someone doing something genuinely different, usually for commercial gain. These days an innovative company is a company that has got an innovation process.

It is someone that is ‘doing’ innovation. This is good. Who wouldn’t want to be innovative these days right? Who doesn’t want to “Do an Apple”?

I don’t want to dwell on Apple because if there’s one thing I’m more fed up with than the misuse of the word innovation it’s the use of Apple as a poster child for the innovation revolution. Don’t get we wrong. I’ve been an Apple fan since 1992 and the company is in my view one of the two most interesting companies on the planet.

The other one is Google.

But, as far as I can see, the company is innovative because of culture not process. Rules are what artists break and the memorable never emerges from a formula, as John Bernbach, the founder of DDB used to say. Obviously, in Google’s case, the memorable did emerge from a formula, but I’m sure you get my point.

First off I think there is a genuine difference between innovation and originality. Big companies that ‘get’ innovation hire consultants that sell them innovation process and innovation metrics. This is fine. As I say, who wouldn’t want to get better at innovation? Big companies love process and numbers because when things don’t work out you can always hide behind them.

But here’s the rub.

You can teach innovation to anyone just like you can teach anyone to play the piano. But you can’t teach anyone to be a concert pianist. This is the point that most organizations don’t get. They think that if they’ve got a process they can be innovative. They can. With a half decent process you’ll be able to crank out dozens of half decent ideas, some of which might actually make some money. But what you won’t be able to do it produce game changing ideas one after another. You might be able to create endless evolutionary improvements, but it’s very unlikely that you will produce a single Apple or Google.

Real innovation is something that’s cultural. Men and women in suits don’t generally start revolutions and neither do organizations with innovation processes turn categories and markets upside down. It’s the same with artists. Do you seriously think that Picasso was a genius because he followed a rigid process? No. He learnt the rules and then he decided to break them.

Again, you can teach anyone to paint but to be a great painter is something that’s in your soul. Equally, great artists don’t ‘research’ their work to see whether anyone might be interested in buying their art. They don’t conduct focus groups to see what potential buyers will be interested in acquiring before they start painting either.

To be continued…

This entry was posted in Innovation. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Problem with Innovation

  1. It is possible to create an innovative culture. Look at the creation of 3M’s Post-It notes.

    I disagree with the notion of a creative department or team – it’s like telling the rest of the company that they don’t need to innovate.

    I worked at Sonera (now TeliaSonera) in Finland for a few years and they had an employee bonus system for anyone who wrote a new patent, a bigger bonus for filing that patent, and a percentage/royalty in the event the company commercialised that patent. That successfully drove innovation at the time.

    Companies are already quite innovative – if any IT company stood still for a year, they’d be using old languages, technologies, etc. and would have difficulty recovering.

    Examples of entire industries/verticals that have failed to innovate and therefore have been overtaken: Estate agents; Travel agents; retail banks (look at PayPal, mobile operators, who are all overtaking retail banks).

    In the future managers will look back on the 2000-2010 period and tell their staff: “During that period the Internet came of age, we didn’t do anything, and our revenue dropped like a stone. Therefore we need to be smarter and more agile to adapt to new market conditions and competitors.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *