Innovation Eats Itself

Innovation Eats ItselfWe all want more innovation, though sometimes we’re not sure why. Turns out, the why is important.

We want to be more innovative. That’s a good vision statement, but it’s not actionable. There are lots of ways to be innovative, and it’s vitally important to figure out the best flavor. Why do you want to be more innovative?

We want to be more innovative to grow sales. Okay, that’s a step closer, but not actionable. There are many ways to grow sales. For example, the best and fastest way to sell more units is to reduce the price by half. Is that what you want? Why do you want to grow sales?

We want to be more innovative to grow sales so we can grow profits. Closer than ever, but we’ve got to dig in and create a plan.

First, let’s begin with the end in mind. We’ve got to decide how we’ll judge success. How much do we want to grow profits? Double, you say? Good – that’s clear and measurable. I like it. When will we double profits? In four years, you say? Another good answer – clear and measureable. How much money can we spend to hit the goal? $5 million over four years. And does that incremental spending count against the profit target? Yes, year five must double this year’s profits plus $5 million.

Now that we know the what, let’s put together the how. Let’s start with geography. Will we focus on increasing profits in our existing first world markets? Will we build out our fledgling developing markets? Will we create new third world markets? Each market has different tastes, cultures, languages, infrastructure requirements, and ability to pay. And because of this, each requires markedly different innovations, skill sets, and working relationships. This decision must be made now if we’re to put together the right innovation team and organizational structure.

Now that we’ve decided on geography, will we do product innovation or business model innovation? If we do product innovation, do we want to extend existing product lines, supplement them with new product lines, or replace them altogether with new ones? Based on our geography decision, do we want to improve existing functionality, create new functionality, or reduce cost by 80% of while retaining 80% of existing functionality?

If we want to do business model innovation, that’s big medicine. It will require we throw away some of the stuff that has made us successful. And it will touch almost everyone. If we’re going to take that on, the CEO must take a heavy hand.

For simplicity, I described a straightforward, linear process where the whys are clearly defined and measurable and there’s sequential flow into a step-wise process to define the how. But it practice, there’s nothing simple or linear about the process. At best there’s overwhelming ambiguity around why, what, and when, and at worst, there’s visceral disagreement. And worse, with 0% clarity and an absent definition of success, there are several passionate factions with fully built-out plans that they know will work.

In truth, figuring out what innovation means and making it happen is a clustered-jumbled path where whats inform whys, whys transfigure hows, which, in turn, boomerang back to morph the whats. It’s circular, recursive, and difficult.

Innovation creates things that are novel, useful, and successful. Novel means different, different means change, and change is scary. Useful is contextual – useful to whom and how will they use it? – and requires judgment. (Innovations don’t yet exist, so innovation efforts must move forward on predicted usefulness.) And successful is toughest of all because on top of predicted usefulness sit many other facets of newness that must come together in a predicted way, all of which can be verified only after the fact.

Innovation is a different animal altogether, almost like it eats itself. Just think – the most successful innovations come at the expense of what’s been successful.

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Mike ShipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior.  He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.

Mike Shipulski




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No Comments

  1. Tanner Christensen on February 28, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Interesting insights. I wonder if that really is some underlining reason people avoid innovation, because it’s the (possible) destruction of what they already know.

    In-fact: I would go so far as to say that’s one clear defining line between those who innovate and those who don’t. People who chase innovation and creative change are those who aren’t satisfied.

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