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| The "Clown" Theory of Innovation.
May 02, 2007
Who Is Tired Of Innovation?
We are about to come out with our list of The Most Innovative Companies in the world (online this Thursday evening) and it is clear that a split is developing between CEOs and top execs who "get" innovation and those who do not. Managers who thought that innovation was only about bringing in the clowns to generate creativity and coming up with that one great hit (gimme an iPod!) are discovering it's far more complex and difficult. They're now tiring of innovation, turning away from it and returning to old ways. That means squeezing out more efficiency and playing even more in the low-cost competitive game. Good luck. The commoditization of knowledge will continue to undermine any value added that comes out of competing on cost.
The vast majority of CEOs and top managers, however, do "get" innovation and show no letup in pushing foward. You won't hear the CEOs of IBM, GE, P&G, Cisco, Motorola, Philips or dozens of other companies saying they are tired of innovation. What they might say is that they are tired of the innovation fad--of the idea of a quick fix and a quick hit.
The truth is that building an innovation culture is a generational chore--just like building quality into organizations. It will involve massive shifts in talent, massive changes in management and huge changes in process and values. It will take 15-20 years and we are probably in year three or four of that innovation cycle.
So who is tired of innovation? Well, those who won't be in business much longer.
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Ah yes, the “Clown Theory” of innovation. I prefer to call it the manure theory, toss a bunch of “wacky” people into a room and hope something tasty grows. Your post points to a couple of issues, that people are still looking for that magic bullet to solve problems now, and the other, more problematic phrase, that people don’t “get it”. People still tend to think of innovation as a one-off product, they see the iPod as spawning all these other goods and services. The innovation was in the how’ and the whys of reframing what the model for digital entertainment looks like. The iPod is an extremely important cog in the machine, but it is not the primary innovation. This is why I prefer to think of the Practice of Innovation, rather than just Innovation as a verb.
Companies that are on the cutting edge of the Practice Of Innovation are ones that have learned that a groundbreaking product or service (the innovation) is the happy outcome of a lot of hard work. In my view, this Practice of Innovation can be defined as:
The art and science of unraveling knotty problems in a way that reveals underlying needs then reframes them in a unique and robust way that guides and inspires long-term strategic development.
People are slowly coming around to the fact the we can craft a discipline around innovation, and those that are doing it are combining design, social science and business brains in clever ways. Rather than tossing all the clever company rebels into a project, it is about finding and cultivating people that have a passion for all three areas, and developing rigorous methods to combine them to gain insight for competitive advantage. Somewhat counter intuitively, the broader the area you are working in, the more disciplined your team needs to be.
I also don’t think it is a question of who get it or does not get it. That is actually a phrase that I am trying to encourage people to stop using. In my experience, when someone says that another person doesn’t get it, particularly when talking about innovation in the abstract, it is often a gloss for: a) I really couldn’t explain my position very well, and they kept asking me questions I could not answer clearly, or b) It’s a neat and tidy way of separating the “smart” people from the “dumb” people. Its just too easy, once you say someone doesn’t get it, you let yourself off the hook for being better at articulating the why.
Aside from the time tellers that have the, sometimes well deserved, belief they already have a good handle on the pulse of what’s coming next, there are other reasons why people appear like they sometimes “don’t get it” so to speak. Sometimes it’s because they just don’t care. When someone tries to explain to me their magical experience at Burning Man and why I should go, it’s a bit of a waste. I get it, I simply don’t care and trying to convince me I should care is taking valuable time away from playing Zelda on my Wii. Another reason people appear as if they don’t get innovation is fear. They understand quite clearly that to make whatever it is being suggested means big changes. Big changes are scary and risky, especially if your business serves the latter side of the adoption curve.
Then there is the worst reason: they have been burned in the past. An ill-conceived or executed “innovation project” was approved and failed on their watch. Lots of cash went with little value in return. But I am hopeful that enough organizations out there are making the turn to the “Practice Of Innovation” that the risk/reward ration will come into a better balance.
Posted by: Mark Dawson at May 2, 2007 05:14 PM