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Innovation – Myths of innovation

In the previous article I discussed the phenomenon where organisations are doing a lot of things that might look like innovation, but they are actually faking it.  I hope I ruffled some tail feathers with the article and if I made some people feel uneasy about their innovation efforts, mission accomplished!  Closely aligned to this topic are perceptions that exist around innovation, which are misleading and might actually lead to this phenomenon of “faking it”.   I refer to this as the myths of innovation.  I want to talk over some of the myths I feel are causing the most damage to innovation efforts.
Myth No. 1: The Eureka Moment.  For many people, it is still the sudden flash of insight – think Archimedes in his bath or Newton beneath the apple tree – that defines the process of innovation. According to this view, organisations need a couple of lone geniuses to come up with bright ideas.  However, for us who live in the real world, the truth is that innovation requires teamwork between people from different areas, a defined process, technology, a budget, and a plan. As Edison rightfully quoted: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.
Myth No. 2: Innovation is disruption.  Closely aligned to the first myth, the perception is that innovation has to be the next big thing, e.g. the iPod or Facebook or a breakthrough new medicine.  But the fact is that for most businesses, placing big bets on high-risk ideas is not only unfeasible, it’s unwise.  Incremental innovations (“safe bets”), in my view, is just as important to grow a business, as well as to provide the required experience that is needed for becoming an innovative organisation, without taking on too much risk at first. Every business needs some practice coming up with ideas that will change everything, but it is unwise to let the pursuit of the breakthrough overshadow the many smaller initiatives that sustain a business over the long run.
Myth No. 3: You can’t have too many ideas. I am a big advocate of Linus Pauling’s view that to have good ideas, you need many ideas.  I still believe this to be true, but the reality is that organisations can’t “do something” with every idea their people come up with, not even every good idea. No organisation will ever have enough resources and time to attack all their opportunities.  The difference is that the business must focus on the best ones and finish them first. But most organisations lack processes to decide which ideas to pursue, much less ways to measure their success. Picking the right ideas starts with aligning innovation efforts to the organisation’s strategy. So the truth is that you can have too many ideas, if you don’t know what to do with them.
Myth No. 4: Innovation is costly.  In its annual Global Innovation 1000 study, the consulting group Booz & Company has consistently found no correlation between a company’s research and development (R&D) spending and how innovative it is ranked by peers. What’s more, it has found no relationship between R&D dollars and financial performance. In Booz’s most recent survey, from 2012, the top 10 R&D spenders actually underperformed their industry peers in terms of both market capitalization and revenue growth.  These research figures prove an important point, but when asked about innovation spending, I always revert back to the view of how costly it can be for an organisation to choose not to spend money on innovation in a competitive environment.

Next Time
The topic for my PhD dissertation is based on the progression of ideas from conception to implementation and why good ideas fall through the cracks sometimes.  While reviewing the reasons for this, I came across one explanation, called the “enactment theory”.  Basically this theory claims that people do not innovate, because of “invisible” barriers they perceive to be in actual existence in the organisation, sometimes also referred to as “red tape”.  So next time I will discuss the effect of “red tape” on innovation.  I conclude with a quote from Woody Williams: “No matter how good the team or how efficient the methodology, if we’re not solving the right problem, the project fails”.
Bluestein, A. 2013.  Debunking the myth of innovation. Online:
Birkinshaw, J., Bouquet, C. & Barsoux, J.L. 2011. The 5 Myths of Innovation. MIT Sloan Management Review, 52(2), 42-51.

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