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Innovation-failure

Innovation is not a useful word

Followers of fashion and implementers of surface-level change are unlikely to achieve innovation, invention and creativity in business.

If its still hyped as "innovation" likely failure may fatigue your people.

Over the years we've seen many lists of innovation leaders, such as the BusinessWeek special report "World Most Innovative companies".

Little has changed since that 2007 BusinessWeek list in terms of the debates in the U.S. and Australia around "innovation". In fact the public debates have stagnated.

In compiling its 2007 list, from speaking to 2,500 surveyed executives globally, BusinessWeek observed a growing climate of "innovation fatigue" and "disillusionment". People were feeling innovation was not all it was being touted to be.

It's not likely this risk of fatigue around the notion of "innovation" has diminished since 2007. How can the risk of fatigue from failure be reduced?

innovation_obstacles

Start with the accompanying BusinessWeek graphic which provides clues on the causes for such fatigue. It lists obstacles to innovation which we've often observed in our firm. The most cited is "risk-averse culture". Put this another way, when speaking of "innovation" the speakers wish the audience to hear something entrepreneurial but the reality of what the speaker is on about is more like something that involves a mere change or minor shift.

Now let's turn to a podcast conversation prepared when the BusinessWeek list was compiled. The podcast recorded a conversation between BusinessWeek journalists, John Byrne and associate editor Jena McGregor.

In the podcast McGregor reported on her telephone conversation with Andy Grove while researching her story.

Grove is of course the co-founder of Intel. During the conversation McGregor had said to Grove that the iPod was "innovative". Grove queried or tested her about what was so innovative about the iPod.

She replied to Grove that the innovation was the lightbulb realisation by someone that songs could be sold for $US0.99 legally, music companies could be won over to sign up, and this could be spun together into a music copying, buying, distribution and identification system around the iPod and iTunes. She did not use this exact phrase but that's the spirit of what she said. Her encapsulation is excellent and contrasted with views that even now fixate on the iPod's groovy look and feel, ease of use and "cool" factor.

What Mr Grove is reported to have said in the phone call about "innovation" perhaps helps diagnose  the innovation fatigue mood of the times. He said to McGregor that people are over-simplifying business needs down to one word, such as "innovation".

Arising from the above, our view is that part of the reason why executives, politicians and others continue to be fatigued by innovation is because it is not embedded in their culture or is not being applied seriously or effectively.

In those cultures fatigue sets in when innovation is then perceived to have failed to achieve results. We suspect there's misunderstandings taking place and using the word "innovation" does not help. Too often innovation is used as a label to follow fashion, not as part of a serious and substantive entrepreneurial endeavour.

The word innovation is popular, but long ago passed its usefulness date. For a perspective on the misleading nature of common usage of the term "innovation" see our article Innovation defined. It aligns us with Grove.

Failure has its categories. There's abject failure arising from a complete lack of clarity or proper process. Then there's blindsided failure, eg due to one or more areas of poor analysis or practice.

Possibly the type of failure which is least likely to cause fatigue is one in which the vision is clear, the intent to change exists in fact, process has been applied appropriately, and research conducted effectively, but market dynamics or something else has changed faster than expected. It does not matter what it is that specifically caused the failure, as long as your company knows what it is. It's that knowledge that helps people keep the faith and avoid fatigue. It allows them to say: "Let's make better mistakes tomorrow."


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