Innovation - let's look beyond the buzzword

Written by
Paul Kirkham

15 Sep 2016

15 Sep 2016 • by Paul Kirkham

Delivering innovation

The theory is sound enough, but in medium-sized and larger organisations the experience occasionally leaves people unconvinced that innovation is delivering in practice. Consider the following remarks:

•    “We hadn’t actually implemented the last initiative by the time the next one came along.”

This is the kind of stuff that gives innovation a bad name – change for change’s sake, new brooms sweeping clean, babies being thrown out with the bathwater.

•    “Yes, we brainstorm regularly. Come up with lots of great ideas – I have them in a drawer somewhere...”

This is the other end of the scale – innovation as rhetoric, old dogs pretending to learn new tricks.

Either or both might sound horribly familiar, not least at a time when mantras such as “No more back to normal” are all too often read as “Here we go again”. Yet there are all sorts of good reasons for innovating – that is, for doing things differently – and it’s helpful to recognise that they fall into two fairly distinct categories: internal and external.


Internal imperatives for innovation

Some firms are remarkably stable, aren't broken and so don’t need fixing and this list isn’t applicable to everyone. That said, over time most businesses will need to change, which is likely to involve one or more of the following:

1.    Innovation for growth – most new or growing businesses offer a novel proposition

2.    Innovation as a consequence of growth – it’s simply not possible to carry on as before as an enterprise expands; something has to change

3.    Innovation to maintain/increase competitive edge – the quest to stay ahead of the game

4.    Innovation to combat business fade – if you do nothing then the original contribution to your business will dwindle as time goes on; your products and services will be copied; your technology will wear out; your patents will lapse; so there will be times when you have to innovate just to stand still

All of these are related to the internal dynamic of the business – what’s sometimes called the “lifetime”. And it’s a fact that an enterprise tends to become less innovative as it gets better at delivering its value proposition. For many a business the greatest innovation challenge of all is to keep its early entrepreneurial spirit alive.

External imperatives for innovation

This is a longer list. It includes some factors that are far from inevitable and cannot include those that are simply unknowable.

1.    Competition

2.    New technology

3.    New discoveries

4.    New regulations

5.    New fashions

6.    New trends

7.    New markets

8.    Booms and busts – unexpected changes in the economic cycle

9.    International factors – wars and natural disasters

The main difference between internal and external imperatives is that the former are largely predictable and the latter, by their very nature, aren’t. We can make forecasts, but we can’t be certain; and some disruptions just can’t be foreseen.

So internal imperatives can be planned for as part of normal business practice, but an innovation strategy needs to be flexible enough to deal with the unexpected. It’s here that fashionable attributes such as resilience and agility actually begin to mean something, because the internal and the external need to be tackled differently.

The ability to recognise why particular initiatives are necessary is highly important – not just to managers but to the managed. It addresses the twin threats of initiative overload and lazy rhetoric and guards against new brooms and old dogs alike. Above all, it bridges the gap between theory and practice and takes us beyond the buzzword. The bottom line is that there are plenty of good reasons to innovate: it’s trying to do it without understanding precisely why that we gets us into trouble.