Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Innovation and necessity

Some colleagues asked for my thoughts on innovation strategies for "old media" companies in relation to a paper they're writing. Without stealing their thunder on the central topic, one thing that occured to me was about the potential disadvantages developed world businesses face in driving innovation through their businesses.

The core issue is that the pace at which "natural selection" of innovations occurs has accelerated. Increased availability of information for and frequency of communication to consumers (writ large, not just in B2C terms) coupled with much larger markets and therefore greater availability of products mean that successful innovations explode in popularity (iPad) and unsuccessful ones die very fast (Kin).

With that in mind, businesses of all kinds need to hedge their bets on innovation, which may mean involving more people in the process. This includes, I might add, innovation in the back office processes to improve efficiency and free resources up to be expended on new products and services.

I contend that businesses in the developed world are less able to innovate with the required frequency because years of security have removed the key motivator for innovation - survival. In earlier generations there was significant polarisation of life span and ability to procreate based on innovation. Those who made better tools or were more creative were at an evolutionary advantage.

Nowadays, however, survival is determined by income in the main, enabling sustenance and shelter to be provided without any innovation at all. Following a process is sufficient to enable survival and continuation of the species. Furthermore, social policy means that it is relatively hard to get rid of employees, reducing the imperative to improve through innovation still further.

The major challenge, therefore, is that enterprises must innovate to survive, but individuals feel no need to. Perhaps this is the core of Stephen Elop's impassioned (and possibly frustrated) "burning platform" memo to Nokia staff.

My colleagues believe that collaboration and mutual reinforcement is the way to break this cycle. I wonder whether the actual solution is more basic competition with visible goals for success and punishments for failure. Ruthless individualism is probably too destructive to be incented as a behaviour, however teaming offers advantages that some people will prefer to take up (as IDEO's "Faces of Innovation" demonstrate). I also believe that collaborative, process-based innovation is a myth and that in reality "cults of genius" around the most creative members of a team are the best way of progressing in leaps rather than steps.

Anyway, enough of that - just some random thoughts for the day!

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