Everybody seems to agree that innovation is a good idea. Nearly everyone also agrees that innovation is the best path to growth, profit and market dominance. Anyone who would dispute those statements has only to look at Apple’s success over the past decade—all based on innovation. Relative newcomers to the U.S. (all from Korea) like Samsung, LG and Hyundai have also relied heavily on innovation for market and brand growth. Sony lived on innovation for years.
So, if innovation’s such a good thing, a good idea, the secret of success, then why isn’t everyone doing it? Could it be that there are hidden obstacles? Are there inhibitors to innovation that dampen enthusiasm and chill the spirits of the most innovative people in any organization? You bet there are! I will cover just three of the biggest and most common ones.
1. NEGATIVISM—“We tried that before and it didn’t work.”
This “old saw” has been around for years, getting in the way of new ideas, crippling organizations. In some respects, the most chilling part of it is true. Something “like this” was tried before, and “it didn’t work,” but “that was then and this is now.” Literally thousands, perhaps millions of ideas were tried before the technology to make them work was sufficiently developed.
New microprocessors have become so small and operate at such low power that “computer control” can be used in many places where “it didn’t work” before. Today’s smart phones were imagined decades ago when TV series Star Trek used a flip-open communicator very much today’s “flip” cell phones.
Why didn’t it work before? Two insurmountable problems: battery technology and the cell tower network to process the signals. Unlike Star Trek’s communicators, today’s powerful smart phones have a much more limited range, and require networked cell towers to relay signals.
THE LESSON: Technology advances rapidly, making possible what didn’t work before.
Change is the only constant and the rate of change is accelerating. Those who fear change are daunted by this fact. Those who embrace change see this as an enormous opportunity.
I could have chosen dozens of examples of how technology has made possible what didn’t, wouldn’t work just a few short years before. Computers, smart phones, remote controls, Wi-Fi, and much, much more. Pioneers in computers imagined only a few personal computers would ever be needed. Famous pioneers like Ken Olson of Digital Equipment said in 1977, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." However, he was talking about an entirely different kind of computer than what we know as today’s PC.
Author Tom Koulopoulos in his wonderful book, The
Innovation Zone, covers far more than I can address in this short article about how innovation happens—or doesn’t; about the obstacles it faces and why innovation still marches on. I encourage readers to check it out for much deeper insights into innovation.
2. GIVING UP—“I tried and I tried. I just couldn’t make that breakthrough.” (So I gave up!)
Many have heard the story of Thomas Edison’s many failures before inventing the incandescent light bulb. A young reporter once asked Mr. Edison if he felt like a failure and shouldn’t just give up after repeated failures. Edison replied, "Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp." And soon thereafter, approaching 10,000 attempts, Edison succeeded. He invented the incandescent light bulb.
THE LESSON: Relentless persistence is at the heart of innovation.
The innovator must believe in and be committed to his goal—his ultimate innovation. Without that belief and commitment, giving up becomes a very attractive enemy of innovation.
There is another enemy of innovation that hides in every organization—complexity. Complexity grows over time as people choose the seemingly easier path of proliferation over the harder, less predictable one—innovation. As complexity is introduced, at first it seems harmless enough. A few more product variations; a few more customers to serve; a few more markets to manage.
But soon these combinations grow into a tangled web of work that strangles an organization. Suddenly everyone is busier than ever, doing more work, but achieving less. Costs mount in mysterious places, and don’t show until the end of accounting periods when—surprisingly——increased sales lead to decreased profits. When people are so busy with this explosion of transactions, products, variations, customers, markets, etc. there is little or no time left for innovation. This easy, insidious proliferation is often mistaken for innovation, but it is far from that.
3. DROWNING IN COMPLEXITY— Complexity expands the work, drowning an organization, draining its strength and vitality, leaving little time for innovation.
Complexity can be exposed, measured and removed. Like pruning vines that invade a garden, it can be cut away and discarded. The fear that sales will drop is nearly always a false one.
When people are refocused—to work on new and better products, service the best customers and markets—sales rise and innovation grows. Often innovation “explodes” leading to dramatic increases in sales and profits. While complexity burdens the organization with “protecting the past” and “perfecting the present,” it leaves no time or resources for “finding the future.”
THE LESSON: Find complexity and manage it; either “use it” or “lose it.”
Once complexity is revealed and managed, innovation can flourish again. In some cases, innovative ideas allow an organization to capitalize on complexity.
Amazon.com sells millions of items, thanks to its systems architecture, which handles the order flow seamlessly, and actually capitalizes on complexity by adding more and more items. Subway sandwich shops make millions of meals to order using less than 4 dozen ingredients.
In many cases, removing 30-40% of the moribund products and unprofitable customers liberates the organization to redirect its time and efforts to the best—customers and products. This almost always leads to a growth spurt, and new, better ideas. Companies who have done this successfully include Ford, Sara Lee, Walmart and many others. When complexity is conquered, the organization will breathe a collective sign of relief and become rejuvenated as it now develops ideas built upon its best—best people, best partners, best products and best ideas.
Overcoming these three enemies of innovation is so much easier when they are exposed. Here they are. What are you waiting for?
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John L. Mariotti is President and CEO of The Enterprise Group. He was President of Huffy Bicycles, Group President of Rubbermaid Office Products Group, and now serves as a Director on several corporate boards. He has written eight business books. His electronic newsletter