Hey, is that really innovation?

Doesn’t it seem that almost everyone says they want to be innovative? Look at strategic statements – all sorts of organizations say they are doing something innovative. Marketing materials very frequently describe solutions, products, or services as innovative. Conferences have themes like “revolution” and “transformation.”

Really? Revolution? Massive change?

To which, I think it’s fair to ask, really? We’re all ready to innovate? We’re signing up for what something genuinely new and disruptive would bring to our organizations? There are revolutions afoot everywhere?

We’re all so good at doing what we already know needs to be done that the clear strategy is to take a brand new approach?

(Isn’t there anyone who’s willing to admit that they’re just trying to catch up so they aren’t hopelessly behind any more?)

What are we ready for?

Innovation is one of those words that can be thrown around fairly liberally – so liberally, in fact, that it loses all meaning. And I think that’s got the potential to be dangerous.

Talk can become cheap. Which leads to eye-rolling.

If you say you’re being innovative, but then keep on with the same-old, same-old, what happens to your credibility? If your audience for this message is internal, you risk demoralizing your people. If your audience is external, you’re just another marketer who isn’t to be believed.

It’s not authentic, and that’s increasingly a problem in an environment where authenticity is more and more valued.

So “innovation” means what exactly?

Are you really going to create something that has never been seen on earth? Or is the innovation in the implementation – applying something for the first time in your organization or field?

Innovation can certainly apply to implementation – social innovation, for instance. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Just be clear about what the intent is – something truly brand-new, or “let’s actually apply these known principles to our organization and learn how that works.”

Sometimes innovation is in something fairly small. It could simply mean finding a new use for something; bringing a technology or a particular practice into an area where it hasn’t been applied.

Are you putting your money where your mouth is?

If you really are trying to create something that hasn’t been done, that suggests certain things about how you should be operating:

  • Resources should be available for development, testing, rapid prototyping, and, eventually, implementation (for internal innovation) or launch (for external products or services). If you aren’t funding it, how does all of this happen? Even on a very small scale, in a small organization, the people at senior levels need to free up some time to just think.
  • Permission to fail. This is a learning process, with a lot of trial and error. There needs to be some “air cover” from the senior levels for this. Innovation can be – probably should be – a bit threatening.
  • Autonomy for teams doing the innovating. As you experiment, you need the space to make some decisions, try some things, let ideas breathe. Micromanaging probably isn’t the best way to do that.

If you are saying you want to innovate, but aren’t doing these things, what’s wrong with this picture? Is the management and resource allocation wrong? Or is it that the stated aspiration to innovate is quite different from the actual aspiration?

Is innovation actually happening?

If you aren’t putting your strategy to innovate up against some kind of measurement, you are probably going to keep doing what you’ve already been OK at. How might you measure successful innovation?

  • Influence. What % of revenue (sales, customers, members, etc.) is coming from a new product or service? How is the innovation changing your business model?
  • Breadth of implementation across the organization. Is everyone now doing things the new way? Are enough people doing it so that you have a critical mass?
  • Conflict. If something is truly innovative, things have changed. This is rarely a process that goes entirely smoothly. Change often means stress. Maybe you’ve acquired a new set of competitors. If things have gone just swimmingly and nobody’s been frustrated, or confused, or taken aback, or even angry during the process, how innovative is it, really? (Maybe it is and you’re just really fantastic at change management, but it’s worth checking.)
  • External recognition. Are you getting invited to share your knowledge with others? Speak on panels? Show people your model somehow? Guided tours? When you say what you’re up to, do people need more information to really get it, or to believe you – as in, is it new and interesting enough that you don’t just get the smile-and-nod-and-I’ve-heard-this-before?

And is it working?

Do we care what’s new if it isn’t successful? Why are you innovating in the first place? What problem is innovation supposed to solve for you? If you don’t track whether innovation (whatever you mean by that) is helping you tackle that problem, how will you know if you’re on the right track?

Let’s keep in mind that a true revolution involves the complete upending of the existing power structure – the servants become the masters. Maybe it’s OK if you think some reform of the existing system is preferable – that can be hard enough to actually accomplish.

If you’d like to discuss your strategies for innovation – or even just your plans to make things somewhat better – please get in touch.

Image from Pixabay user geralt, used via Creative Commons. 

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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