Stuck in Innovation Philosophy & How to Get Out

by Salem Baer

Spoiler alert: The answer isn’t to wear more hoodies to work.

Most companies claim to value innovation. To say otherwise would be like the GM of an MLB team announcing to the league that they’re not really into winning anymore. This approach doesn’t rally investors or fans. However, since “Innovation” means so many different things to different people, it can be used to communicate almost anything. In fact, in a survey of literature on innovation, Edison et al. found over 40 definitions. The result of the ambiguity of the word has led many corporations into embracing a quasi-state of innovation, often called innovation theater, where buzzwords are used, innovation outposts are established, but progress appears absent or detained.

Bridging the gap between philosophy and action was one of the most common challenges we found in a study) we recently conducted on corporate intrapreneurs. 73% of participants reported that their objective was still being defined or that it was too early to see results, despite the fact that most of these teams were several years old, had already secured funding, and had fully-staffed their team. Our results echoes those of GE’s Global Innovation Barometer for 2016; while 81% of business executives are mindful of the risk of ‘Digital Darwinism’ or fear of becoming obsolete, the majority of organizations that reported having an innovation strategy in place were still struggling to come up with radical and disruptive ideas.

Despite the training workshops, books, and conferences on innovation, there remains a gap between philosophy and action; preparation and progress. When we asked the New Business Innovation Specialist at a national insurance company about her team’s biggest wins, she listed several hackathons they had hosted. Now, hackathons are great. We love workshops that teach novel approaches. But…what did the hackathon produce? Which metric was improved with that new approach? Several others shared stories of innovation training sessions they had hosted, or incentive programs for generating ideas they had implemented. However, often accompanying these successes was the confession that they didn’t know what came next. Said another way, they struggled to translate their generated traction into action; they’re stuck in innovation philosophy

Indicators You’re Stuck in Innovation Philosophy

You hear “We’re hammering out our process” or “We’re working on building awareness of our initiatives.”

Unless the team is under 3 months old, this likely means they don’t know how to pull the trigger.

Hackathons, workshops, or trips to San Francisco are considered accomplishments.

In an effort to demonstrate progress to leadership, being stuck in innovation philosophy can easily slip into “innovation theatre.” A hackathon can be a great kickstart to a project and a trip to the Bay can inspire new ways of thinking– but these are helpful tactics, not end goals.

“One of our biggest challenges in getting caught up in “innovation theatre,” innovation without value and business models put around it. Sometimes it can feel like we’re basically just innovating for the sake of innovating.”

- Special Advisor for Innovation for a U.S. Intelligence Agency.

Solution: Stop “Innovating” and Just Solve Problems

The problem too often found in innovation teams is that they make innovation the end goal, instead of an attribute of the process. When a company makes innovation their end goal, there is a disproportionate amount of focus put on generating “disruptive ideas.” While that sounds great, what does it mean? Operating under this goal, many teams struggle to know their objective. On the other hand, when a problem is clearly defined, employees can then get creative, or “innovative,” with how they solve it. Differentials founder, Tim Metzner, dives into some of the how of defining a problem here. Consider the example from Bill Tyler, co-founder and editor of Fast Company Magazine:

Southwest Airlines never said, “We want to be the country’s most innovative airline.” Its leadership said, “We want to ‘democratize the skies’ and give rank-and-file Americans the freedom to fly.” They perfected a new way to be an airline by virtue of what they wanted to achieve as an airline. They did what made sense to them, even if their strategies made no sense to the legacy carriers.

The same could be said about countless “innovative” companies. Zappos focused on customer service. Henry Ford’s moving assembly line aimed at reducing production costs. These companies sought out to solve well-defined problems. The laurels of “innovation” they’ve all received since are happy, welcomed outcomes, I’m sure, but they were never the goal.

The key to getting out of innovation philosophy? Pick a problem.

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