What price innovation without strategy ?

Innovation is much prized.  For good reason as the last two centuries have seen change at an unprecedented pace, a pace that seems only to be speeding up.  In the race for change some have gained, some have lost.  Some brands have thrived, some have died.  Surely the single most important trait to have therefore in your business, in your career is innovation?


Yet the I word is a little like the C word (I mean Creativity).  Both are much talked about, much desired and can often be misdirected.  Innovation when not appropriate is tiresome, and possibly destructive.  It leads to a misdirection of energy and will not lead to positive change.


The British Science Association have compiled a list of the top ten innovations that should have step changed their sector, or even the world we live in, but failed to change anything.


The list includes Concorde, a masterpiece of tech but a commercial failure, microwave ovens (were going to make us all chuck out our traditional ovens), high rise buildings, the moon landings, magnetic trains, and my personal favourite, as I can remember this being announced repeatedly as a game changer, video conferencing.  I know grandmothers who “video conference” their grandchildren more frequently than most of us use the facility.  My last video conference was last summer.  I’m in conference calls constantly.  But my face just doesn’t seem to be required.


There is just something about the idea of innovation that appeals.  It is a great “brand attribute” to have.  The two most significant attributes that sell more product in most categories are innovation and value for money.  Preferably both.


Yet innovation needs strategy to guide it.  Or it can really be a waste of time and money (I’m sure we can all think of pointless innovations that we’ve wasted time over in the last few years.)


We both like and fear innovation for deep rooted reasons.  The zone of proximal development is crucial to learning when we are children.   This zone contains new stuff that is just about within our reach.  Learning is play, and in this zone innovation is fun and rewarding.  Our animal brain however fears innovation.  When something changes in the environment our brains alert us to danger (think of a deer startled in the forest by the unexpected snap of a twig).  In this way therefore innovation can terrify.  Too much changing too soon and without proper attention to detail simply step changes our stress levels not our ability to progress.


Furthermore one innovation is not enough.  It must be embedded in the culture of your business.  One of the world’s greatest and most famous innovators Henry Ford was a great innovator initially and then a real conservative in many respects.  He brilliantly intuited what would happen if an ordinary person was treated as a consumer and if their growing aspirations were met at scale.  Having made his breakthrough in car manufacturing and led the development of industrialism, he failed to see that consumer’s aspirations would not stop at his product, and for many years fought against the innovations that his competitors created to overtake him, both in product novelty and in industrial relations.


A framework for innovation is essential – you have to change simply to stand still let alone develop.  You cannot sit on one great innovation and expect it to sustain your business.  Nor can you afford innovation for the fun of it.  It must be applied at scale and purposeful or it is not worth the candle.





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