Why Innovation is not overrated

Scott Berkun wrote a post on ‘Why Innovation is Overrated’. He argues that successful organizations are successful not because they’re great innovators, more so because they are excellent at ‘making good things’. Indeed, none of the companies that he’s discussed were first in their field:

Apple did not invent the cell-phone, Motorola did. The first touchscreen was created in 1971. Archie, the world’s first Search engine was running in 1990, and pay-per-click was pioneered at Goto.com. And yes, the first motion picture was created by Edison in 1889.

I agree with Scott’s statement that ‘Making good things people love is the true spine of these companies successes’. But ignoring breakthroughs? I’m not sure if I get the drift? Everything that can be invented has been invented?

The DynaTAC, “The brick“, weighed 2 pounds, and offered just a half-hour of talk time for every recharging. Sure, it was a good thing, but it wasn’t good enough. In fact you wouldn’t even call it a cell phone. I’d blame a lot on innovation. ‘Merry Christmas’, the first text message was sent in 1992. NTT DoCoMo, a company that invested heavily in R&D came up with the ‘i-mode‘ to offer internet and email to its subscribers in 1999. Sometime in Y2K, the first Mp3 Phone was announced. And then in 2001, Sharp introduced the first Megapixel camera-phone. And you know what, now that we have e-books, Polymer Vision recently announced the Readius.

Now, while I agree that these are all truly great things, how did all those technologists come up with all those brilliant ideas? It would be tempting to lean on the powerful words in the vocabularies of those visionaries – problem, experiment, solve, exploration, change, risk and prototype. Sure, but don’t these very words lead to that one great thing – innovation?

Scott suggest that we don’t need to ask ourselves toothless questions such as ‘How can we be innovative?’ But, in fact, if we don’t…..we fall into a commodity trap. Price wars. Advertising wars. The fact is, we need innovation….processes and systems that take technological progress, discoveries, inventions, and bring them to commercial reality. If that didn’t happen, neither Scott nor I would be blogging today.

Getting the Boss to listen

One of our innovation crazed MBA students, Pete Smith, commented on my recent post about good ideas and no follow up. In his internship this summer, he’s getting great exposure to some very senior folks (CEO!!) at a large established company that’s completely focused on R&D but acknowledges that they have little incubation capability. They ream every last drop out of slowing markets….

Poor Pete (our energized student) could barely restrain himself…but he needled that senior leader just a bit. Couldn’t help it. Had to. He’s learned about the need to think further out than next quarter, or next year, or the next three years. And he knows how to incubate new businesses. I’ve seen him do it twice already.

On the other hand, he’s dealing with having to be diplomatic, and that’s a critically important lesson. When to ease up. How to deliver the message in a manner that senior leaders can hear it. Sometimes it takes awhile. Sometimes you have to be painfully loud, but other times that’s just not the right approach.

So Pete….the grade is A. You knew the answer, and you knew that now was not the time or place to deliver it. Change in organizations takes time. We chip away at some of them bit by bit. But others get it today. So Pete and his colleagues in MBA programs have to decide: Do I want to work at a place that already gets it and is trying to steam forward…or do I want to work at a place where I can leverage what I’ve learned to educate my bosses??????? It’s all good, and it’s all necessary.

See you in a couple of weeks Pete!