Innovation is the new quality initiative. Everyone is “into” innovation. It is the new revolution that is going to revolutionize declining industries, markets, and businesses. And it can—if it is more than rhetoric and becomes an integrated systemic capability in the organizations that are “talking the talk.” However, like quality in decades past, the initial attempts at “innovation” have had more a resemblance to an elementary school play than an understanding and absorption of the underlying concepts, behaviors, tools, techniques, methods, and systemic process changes that characterize real world innovation in action.
Throwing Money and Sameness at Innovation
If traditional research and development (R&D) spending were an indicator of the ability to innovate, then some of the most troubled companies—and one of the United States’ largest industries (automotive)—would be leading on the edge of the innovation revolution: Namely, General Motors (GM), who spent more than any other U.S. company on R&D over a twenty-five year period that included the last part of the 20th century. Neither GM nor the industry that it represents brings to mind innovation in products, business models—or well, anything else, quite honestly.
What the U.S. automotive industry and GM (as well as its U.S. former “Big Three” brethren) bring to mind is an ability to spend on “innovation” and talk “innovation” but generate “more of the same.” They, like many other companies in many other industries and markets worldwide miss the true concept and definition of innovation—doing things differently and getting better results—at every level of the organization, which translates into the product, the process, and the relationships of the organization. Ultimately and importantly this also translates into the competitiveness, the sustainability, the profitability, the cashflow, and the results of the organization.
Innovation: Who Is It? Where Is It? What Is It?
Have you ever read the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears A Who? Horton the elephant is looking at a puffball where the Who’s live: all these tiny little creatures in this tiny little world, a world of imagination. Innovation is much like Horton and the Who’s. Dr. Seuss had imagination. Kids have imagination. Your organization has to have imagination, to have ideas, to have innovation, and at every level. The Who’s must have it. More importantly, the Who’s must have time to have it.
Who is part of the innovation revolution? Everyone at every level is part of the process. Innovation is systemic. Innovation must be part of everyone’s job description, even if—no, especially—if it is facilitating the process of innovation. Perhaps you aren’t especially good at generating original ideas, but you are fantastic at taking an idea and making it work, and translating it into the practical, finding the bugs, making it marketable, putting the financials together. All of those things after the idea are part of the innovation; without them the idea is simply an idea. It isn’t an innovation; it isn’t a product. It is an idea going nowhere. Someone has to be there to take it and make it work. So innovation is being both creative and practical. It is ideas combined with execution. Innovation is cross-functional and a team sport. It is individuals and groups. It is champions, mentors, guides, and workers. It is everyone, every day.
Innovation: Born to Run or Learning to Walk? Both Can Survive and Thrive
As humans we aren’t born with the ability to walk. We have to learn how to do it. We begin with rolling over and move on to sitting up. We learn to scoot around. We get ambitious and we begin to crawl. Mom and Dad convince us to hold on to their hands and take shaky steps on trembling legs while they tell us that we can do it. We fall down and we get up. We walk around stationary objects. We eventually take off on our own two feet, but with frequent stumbles and much unsteadiness. We are several years old before we are well-equipped to run freely.
Unlike most animals, we aren’t imprinted with the instinct within moments of birth to struggle to our feet and to be prepared to run for our lives. We aren’t competing for life from birth in the same way that other animals do. A giraffe, for example, is born and within moments must begin to find its feet, take its first stumbling steps, and soon thereafter be able to run to keep up with the herd—or be left behind and victim to predators. Some organizations are very “human” when they are born; they aren’t born innovators and must learn (and they can). Others seem to be born with the instinct to innovate (run).
Talking or Walking Innovation
Some organizations have more time than others to learn to innovate; others must learn quickly or fall victim to competition and the changing environment. Which type of organization are you? Born to innovate? Taking that first shaky step? Or do you need to learn to innovate, and are you searching for hands to hold while you learn or someone to catch you if you fall? Don’t know? Here are a few questions to help you decide if you are “talking” or “walking” innovation:
- Does my company “adopt” a new “initiative” every month (day, week)—whatever is trendy and new is the new “buzz”—even when we don’t really know what it means?
- Are we asked to provide people for new teams—any warm body will do —for projects, as long as someone from our group attends the meetings?
- Do we have meetings for meetings’ sake, in which no real changes ever occur?
- What happens if someone makes suggestions for changing how things are done?
- Are there rigid organizational structures, roles, and hierarchies that govern every meeting?
- Would a lower level person in the company be comfortable on a team with senior managers taking an active role in innovation, leadership, and creativity?
- Does your organization value diversity as long as you do things the conventional way?
The questions above may have you nodding your head, or perhaps wincing. If your organization wants to be innovative, it begins with the first big step: recognizing that you really aren’t. Your journey has begun on the road to becoming one of the Bold, the Innovative, the Growing businesses of today and tomorrow. The next step is gaining an understanding of what innovation is and what it takes to transform your organization into its full B.I.G. business potential.
Copyright ©2008 Lea A. Strickland, F.O.C.U.S. Resource, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
 Schrage, Michael. “For Innovation Success, Do Not Follow Where the Money Goes.” November 8, 2005: Financial Times.