Written by
James H. Sutcliffe

06 Apr 2017

Can consistency kill innovation?

06 Apr 2017 • by James H. Sutcliffe

How often does "this is the consistent answer" get used to support an argument? 

Often, I would say. Of course, sometimes it is a valuable approach, but what about those times when consistency is a cloak that discourages innovation and radical thought? Does Stephen Hawking only think consistently? Did Google grow because its inventors were consistent with IBM mainframe technology?

Consistency can create risk as much as it minimises it. Regulation is often based on the idea that everyone should consistently follow a centrally determined set of rules. But what if the central rules are ineffective? The financial crashes of 2007/8 occurred in spite of everyone following central rules. Will the next crash be even bigger because there is now an even greater emphasis on consistency? 

Eccentricity and creativity

A little eccentricity is the cause of much creativity. You can see this in leadership. Were Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela conformists? Of course not. Churchill stood up against a violent dictator when the conventional thinking was appeasement. Gandhi worked out that India's independence would come about through passive resistance when many were arguing for armed insurrection. And who can forget Mandela famously wearing a Springbok rugby shirt against the consistent advice of his ANC party.

Of course consistency can be a good thing; we especially appreciate it from brands. We want a Holiday Inn to be of a consistent standard; we want Nurofen to be consistently safe and stop headaches. My wife and I appreciate it when we are consistent with each other. It would disturb us if we started to behave in different ways—I'd actually be rather suspicious! We need some consistency to make long-term plans. Companies won't invest in countries where they feel that the government behaves arbitrarily.

Spot opportunities

It's easy to fall into patterns of consistency. It was once suggested to me that we should provide insurance against dread diseases such as cancer and heart attacks. At the time, there weren't many statistics to measure the cost of this insurance, and I worried that we would be out of line. Nowadays it's commonplace. Too much consistency needs to be suspected when you hear "nobody else does it like that" or "everybody does it like that". Sometimes being consistent with your own cultural background means you don’t spot the opportunities.

So my view is to question things when the motivation is consistency. Sometimes they may turn out to be the best way forward, but they will be worth questioning nonetheless. And I do try to make time for those eccentrics and wide thinkers, in business and elsewhere. It’s the source of much innovation. It’s also more fun.