Innovation – Urgent or Important?

Everybody who works in business is busy. There are deadlines, crises, urgent requests from on high, and email inboxes stuffed to bursting. How many times do you reply “very busy” when asked how things are going? Scheduling meetings is a diary nightmare; it’s easier to seek perfect alignment of the planets than to get eight senior people in the same room within the next month. The personal workload and efficiency challenge is particularly acute these days.

So it’s not surprising that the urgent too often outweighs the important. When the ship is burning you naturally try to put out the fire rather than check the course. It’s a natural human response to alleviate the source of immediate pain rather than invest time and effort in future comfort. However minor challenges can be treated as crises that need a firefighting approach. We seem to love a crisis and stepping heroically into the breach. Don’t get me wrong – putting yourself out to deliver something urgent is admirable, as long as we don’t lose the balance.

And what suffers? Important things. Like innovation. Like the future growth of the company. Like worrying about that new competitor whose product might just put us out of business in a few years if we don’t start to think about it now. Is the task that has today’s deadline more important than building business for the year after next? Only you know the answer for your company.

Innovation is not usually something that has to be done by 5 o’clock today. It’s a longer-term challenge. But we know that projects aren’t done in one go, they’re done step by step, and if you don’t take those steps day by day then we all know what happens – innovation projects become late.

The later stages of projects are not usually a problem. That’s because there are impending deadlines, promises to customers, sunk investment and we know we just have to hit the dates. It’s the early stages of projects that are more likely to suffer from a lack of urgency. But in terms of NPV a three months’ delay at the start of a project is the same as three months lost at the end.

So how do we find time when there isn’t any? How do we ensure innovation projects maintain momentum and importance? The answer of course is that it’s a question of balance. We can’t apply a dogmatic or draconian mandate. Only by consciously scheduling time for innovation day by day will progress be made. Only by making short term commitments on longer term projects will we shift the center of gravity towards the importance of growth.

The most efficient people I know are the ones who always seem to have time. They appear relaxed and focused, but when they have to break off the conversation it’s done clearly and politely. They’re decisive, focused and on top of their game. It’s like football – the best players always seem to have lots of time on the ball, they’re never rushed.

The companies I know that do innovation well schedule it as part of “business as usual”. They recognize that late today is late at launch. They ignore neither the urgent nor the important, because innovation is both.

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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.

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No Comments

  1. Venky on August 25, 2011 at 8:59 am

    While you are right in pointing out that innovation cannot be a mandate, don’t you think, looking at the constant state of evolution in business, it has become a prerogative for business. You are spot on in saying it is business as usual. I have written about this perspective about innovation in my blog Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

    • Kevin McFarthing on August 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      Hi Venky – I agree, the vast majority of innovation is incremental, and I don’t think we should look down on it. Yes, disruptive innovation can do exactly what it says, but doesn’t happen often. The point of my blog is that even with incremental innovation, unless it is happening very, very soon, there’s a temptation to delay it because of urgent “issues”. It should be scheduled and and given space to develop in the midst of the urgent stuff. I think the balance should be mandated, so the urgent and important both get air time.

      By the way, I really liked your blog.

  2. Venky on August 27, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Thanks Kevin for your kind words. You are right when you are talking about the need to postpone it with pressing issues. But I beg to differ on the thought that it can be scheduled. We can give space for it. But we can’t schedule it and say “Lets innovate guys..”..It would manifest only when the ecosystem necessitates it. Its a kinda scary thought because even we devote space for it, it may not work. For instance, if you look at Google Wave, although it was a breakthrough product, it didnt work because the ecosystem felt it was way ahead of its time.

  3. Kevin McFarthing on August 28, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Hi Venky. I disagree – you can schedule innovation. You can gear up your company, set targets and build it into the corporate calendar (see I’ve worked in a company that did this extremely well. This applies mostly to incremental innovation, breakthrough is much more difficult. Even if you can’t schedule guaranteed success, you can schedule trying to achieve it.

  4. Venky on August 31, 2011 at 10:33 am

    You are absolutely right. My only concern is we cannot be sure of success as the ecosystem may like or reject it and yet we have to keep on innovating and evolving continuously..

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