Be Innovative, Don’t Do Innovation

How far should you plan?

Not every company needs to be innovative. There are highly successful business models for companies that deliver common products and services. There is even a case to be made that the “first mover advantage” is actually a disadvantage - that companies that follow don’t need to invest the same effort in selling an idea to their customers.

However, our society has created a culture of innovation that has driven its way into companies, big and small. Agile Management, Lean Startup, Design Thinking - these are all business processes designed to embed innovation into our work.

But is this culture a good thing?

In my opinion, it’s not a straightforward answer. In many cased, yes - it has led to entirely new industries that didn’t exist 10 years ago. And in other cases, it has led companies to the brink of ruin. I would argue that the difference between the two comes down to an organisational mindset - how a company approaches innovation, and provides the supporting business structure and leadership.

Are you being innovative or just doing innovation?

What’s the difference, you ask? Being innovative means taking risks. It means accepting, and being ready for failure. It means second guessing your own customers in some instances. Kodak is probably the poster child for doing, but not being, innovative. They invented the digital camera but did not feel the market was ready and were not willing to take the risk of hurting their print partners and so did nothing. Now there is a digital camera everywhere, and most of them aren’t Kodak’s.

A side note: Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean doing something brand new. It can be doing something old in a new way or with a new market. But, by definition, it is a risk. Apple took the Xerox Parc prototype GUI interface and put it successfully inside an innovative personal computer. Google took the idea of a social network and created an unsuccessful product called Google+. Both these companies didn’t invent the idea. They tried it, either successfully or unsuccessfully, in a new way.

Back to being innovative - if you’re part of an established company that has decided to try lean startup. Look at the supporting processes. Are you penalized if an idea fails? Is your KPI built around the success of an experiment? Does your finance and procurement department expect fully qualified and clear benefits before investing? Are you limited in your ability to talk directly, and frankly, to your users/clients about their experience? If the answer to any of these is yes, then you are doing innovation, not being innovative.

I will leave you with a final example. Adobe created an innovation tool called the Adobe KickBox. On the surface, this is a great idea. Anyone can request the box: inside is all the information needed on how to turn an idea into an experiment, a Starbucks gift card, and (the brilliant part) a $1,000 credit card to spend on anything you like. But here’s the problem, Adobe is effectively saying that their internal procurement processes are so counterproductive to innovation that they need to bypass them entirely. Kudos to them for recognising the problem and coming up with a workaround, but for the organisation to truly “be” innovative, it has to go deeper.

Innovation, done right, is important. However, if you can’t be innovative, don’t get caught up in all the hype and expectations around it. Be good at what you do, adapt over time and build a strong market. That’s the best any company can do - you don’t need to be innovative to be that.

So are you being innovation or just doing innovation - let me know below?