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But Is It Innovation?

The trouble with talking about innovation is that we’re dealing with the opposite of potatoes. The old Gershwin song reminded us that whether we call it a po-tay-to or a po-tah-to, it’s the same tuber. With innovation, however, the same word has two very different meanings. You say innovation and I say innovation, and we might as well call the whole thing off.

Because it’s not a trivial miscommunication. The dictionary allows innovation to mean both “a new idea, method, or device” and “introduction of something new,” and between those two lies a vast chasm. Is the emphasis on newness or on commercialization? We’re talking differences in scope, in resources, in process, in outcome, and in requisite management skill set.

When a CEO says she wants to build a culture of innovation, she is probably hoping to churn out game-changers like iPad or Swiffer. But chances are her product manager will chalk it up as an innovation win if he can launch the 5th flavor of his brand’s yogurt.

Many thought leaders in the field of innovation distinguish between sustaining and disruptive initiatives. Sustaining innovation is a product improvement or line extension – something close to home. Disruptive innovation is something radically different for the market and the organization. One is comfortable for the status quo. The other is not. One is predictable and repeatable. The other is not. Each requires distinctly different skill sets to manage well.

I believe we create confusion by naming both with the same word. It enables the CEO to think disruptive and the product manager to think sustaining, and thus fosters lack of organizational alignment.

Businesses would be better served by reserving the word innovation only for disruptive initiatives that challenge the status quo. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of sustaining initiatives. These are the projects necessary to maintain a business’s health and drive the kind of predictable growth that allows organizations to thrive. Business-as-usual requires organizations to fill their pipelines with these organic growth initiatives and have processes for completing them in a predictable, orderly manner.

Remember that Apple – this decade’s poster child for innovation – puts a lot of effort into sustaining initiatives like periodically upgrading their operating system, introducing new colors and configurations of iPods, adding new carriers for iPhones, and slimming down iPads. If they did not, each of these businesses would quickly become a commodity in the face of competitive pressure. They schedule their upgrades well in advance, and deliver them on time to impact quarterly sales forecasts.

So healthy businesses need organic growth initiatives. But they also need innovation to create major new opportunities, and that’s a different ballgame.

True innovation – the development and successful commercialization of game changing ideas, products, or processes – is messy. No one has ever figured out how to have a Eureka! moment on a regular schedule. Breakthrough ideas only come when they are ready to come, and then usually present extraordinary challenges on the way to commercialization. Because, by definition, they threaten the status quo, which most of the organization wants to protect. They engender internal resistance from well-meaning managers who ask important questions, like “Will the innovation cannibalize current business? Will it divert resources from parts of the business that are growing predictably? Will it confuse customers? Will it fit the brand? Couldn’t we do something less risky?”

Good business managers are generally adept at building and driving a pipeline of sustaining initiatives. They measure their success by the market impact they deliver. But successful innovators must have a high tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. They need to not feel threatened by the idea that their pet projects may never get launched. They need the resilience to hold their head up at company meetings even when others see them as draining resources from safer projects. They need the fortitude to chase promising insights down rabbit holes from which they may not return. They need to feel they have earned their salary by making progress – because they may never deliver market impact.

Innovators are a different breed. By embracing higher risk in pursuit of higher reward, they are the ones capable of putting their companies into hyper-drive. They are the world changers.

Just don’t insult them by calling your latest version of toothpaste an innovation.


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