Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble liken executing innovation to descending a mountain: it's too often an afterthought to the glamorous part of the journey
The climbers awoke just past midnight after hardly sleeping at all. They were excited and alert. They were among the nearly ten thousand climbers each year that attempt to reach the heavily glaciated summit of Mount Rainier in the northwestern United States. It is perhaps the world's most difficult climb that is accessible to novices, so long as they are accompanied by expert guides.
The first hour of the climb was easy. Each subsequent hour was harder. Finally, at dawn, the climbers got their first glimpse of the summit. It was as they had imagined—majestic and inspiring, gleaming in the morning sun. The climbers focused all of their energies on getting to the top.
With each step, however, their labors became more excruciating. Muscles ached. The air became thinner, and some of the climbers became dizzy. Some contemplated the very real possibility that they would not be able to make it. Each year, nearly half of those who attempt to reach the summit turn back unfulfilled.
But these climbers persevered. Step by step, they reached the summit. They were jubilant and exhilarated. Months of preparation had come to fruition. To be atop Mount Rainier is to sense that you are on top of the world. The city of Seattle lies more than 14,000 feet below.
But their adventure was hardly over. They still had to get back down.
Their expert guide was ever mindful, in fact, that the descent from Rainier's summit was actually the more difficult part of the expedition. It may be that climbing a flight of stairs is harder than descending. It may be that hiking to the top of a local peak is more difficult than the return trip. But Rainier is different.
It is a dangerous mountain, one that claims a few lives each year. The snow on the surface of the glacier can collapse into interior caves and tunnels, and climbers can slip into deep crevasses. As each hour passes, sunlight and rising temperatures soften the snow and increase the risk. Climbers are deeply fatigued and prone to mistakes.
No matter how many times they are told of the dangers in advance, climbers naturally relax at the summit. The glamorous part of the quest is over. The big aspiration—the big dream—has been fulfilled. The trip down is, instinctively, an afterthought.
Having invested very little of their emotional energies in the descent—and having little physical energy remaining—the climbers took their first steps down the other side of the mountain.
The Other Side of Innovation
There is a Rainier-like summit in the innovation journey. It is the moment a company says YES! That's a great idea! Let's take it to market! Let's make it happen!
Getting to the summit can be difficult. It might involve years of scientific research, months of building prototypes, endless creative brainstorming sessions, exhaustive market research, in-depth strategic analyses, intense financial modeling, and more. Dozens or even hundreds of possibilities might be eliminated before…finally…the search comes to fruition.
The challenge of reaching the summit lures many. It captures the imagination. The summit is majestic and inspiring. It gleams in the sunlight.
Indeed, getting a group of businesspeople engaged in a Big Idea Hunt is usually easy. Brainstorming sessions are fun! Out-of-the-box thinking is energizing! Ideation is cool! Not only that, generating a breakthrough idea is glamorous. It wins great status. If you come up with the brilliant idea, then you will always be associated with it.
Getting to the summit can seem like the fulfillment of a dream, but it is not enough. After the summit comes the other side of innovation—the challenges beyond the idea. Execution. Like Rainier, it is the other side of the adventure that is actually more difficult. It is the other side that holds hidden dangers. But because the summit itself has such strong appeal, the other side is usually an afterthought. It is humdrum. It is behind-the-scenes. It is dirty work.
Ideas are Only Beginnings
Companies think far too little about the other side of innovation, and we are not the first to say so. In 2007, IBM ran an advertisement intended to convey that it could help its clients innovate. It featured a pudgy mock superhero sporting a capital "I" on his outfit who introduced himself as "Innovation Man." A bemused colleague asked, "And your job is?" The superhero responded, with gusto, "I for Ideation!, I for invigoration! I for incubation!" The onlooker replied, "What about I for Implementation?" Innovation Man: "I knew I forgot something."
We loved the ad. It captured, so humorously and yet so perfectly, the off-balance approach to innovation that is commonplace in corporations around the world. There is too much emphasis on ideas, not nearly enough emphasis on execution. Thomas Edison made essentially the same observation more than a century ago: Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.
Several companies have shared with us their maps of the innovation process. These maps are revealing. One typical diagram showed innovation as a four-stage process: generating ideas, refining ideas, selecting ideas, and, finally, like a lazy afterthought, implementation.
No wonder, then, that so many innovation initiatives hit a wall. The guiding managerial model for innovation is just too simple. It reduces to:
Innovation = Ideas
As a result, most corporations have more ideas than they can possibly move forward with. Far too many promising ideas on paper never become anything more than…promising ideas on paper.
Here is an improved equation for innovation:
Innovation = Ideas + Execution
Take just a moment to rate your company on a scale of 1 to 10, first for its ability to generate innovative ideas, then for its ability to execute them. Repeatedly, when we do this exercise with executives, they rate their companies relatively high for ideas—say, 7 or 8—but quite low for execution—typically 1 or 2.
Where is there greater room for improvement? And yet, most companies, in their efforts to improve innovation, focus entirely on the Big Idea Hunt. Focusing on ideas may unleash more immediate energy, but focusing on execution is far more powerful. And innovation execution is what this book is all about.
Excerpted from The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble (Harvard Business Press).