Confusing Lack of Innovation Standards

by Jeffrey Phillips

Confusing Lack of Innovation StandardsI’ve read about the five phases of a project:

  1. Euphoria
  2. Disenchantment
  3. Search for the Guilty
  4. Punishment for the innocent
  5. Rewards for the uninvolved.

I’ve also read about the five stages of grief:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

What we need in innovation is a five step method to describe the confusing explosive growth. Perhaps something like this:

  1. Euphoria
  2. Extensive, unbounded definitions
  3. Impossible expectations
  4. Wild claims
  5. Occasional success

I believe that one of the biggest barriers to innovation is the lack of objective, documented methods, tools and standards. When virtually anyone can assert a statement as innovation “fact”, who knows what to believe?

I was shocked to discover that, based on which innovation “expert” you believe, Raleigh NC (my current hometown) is either the 4th most innovative city in the US (based on a survey recently published by Forbes Magazine) or is the 24th most innovative city, (two slots below Detroit!), based on a report by 2thinknow. I haven’t seen the details behind either report, and I’m sure good, well-meaning people can disagree about certain criteria or metrics. But isn’t this just a bit discongruous?

The fact is that both publications picked innovation metrics that they believed reflect innovation capabilities and results. Without drilling down into the analysis, it’s hard to know which, if either, are correct. But with such a wide disparity, clearly at least one of them is wrong, if not both. I argued in an earlier post that Forbes’ work relied too heavily on patent generation, which propelled Raleigh up the charts due to the presence of IBM and three major research universities. However, I don’t believe that Raleigh is less innovative than Houston or Detroit, which the 2thinknow report suggests. A city that doubles in population over ten years with vibrant high tech, biomedical and other growth industries is certainly more innovative than a city that loses half its population in ten years.

These two innovation rankings simply point out a larger issue with innovation. As long as there are no standards, no agreed metrics, no accepted models, anyone can state with some authority that his or her report, or model, or process, is the “right” one. Like any fast growth industry, there are a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon selling the latest snake-oil to profit from a lot of confusion. We in the innovation industry need to begin to recognize that only through the definition of standard measures, processes and models will innovation be recognized as more science than art. Until we develop standards that can be published and people can review, every offering in innovation is part black magic, and the purveyors profit from that ambiguity and confusion. It’s incumbent on us, innovation practitioners, to begin to agree on standard innovation methods, models and processes, which will identify the best innovation measures and metrics. All other areas of management specialty have followed the path from folk wisdom to wild claims to organized documented fact. We no longer guess at whether or not we make a profit – we use Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Well, you do if you’re not a hedge fund or financial services firm. But you get my drift. All the good thinking can be codified so we can provide more clarity to the work.

Is Raleigh the 4th best city for innovation, or the 24th best city for innovation? Who knows? There’s no agreed way to measure, so both answers could be right, which means the level of uncertainty is far too high.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

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  1. As an engineer, I agree with Jeffrey Phillips insightful article about converting innovation from arcane art to routine process. One measure of the maturity of a discipline is in having a predictable process that creates predictable results. Yet three aspects of innovation make me wonder if standardizing innovation is possible or even desirable.

    First, defining innovation presumes that innovation is an end in itself rather than a means to other strategic ends (e.g., market share, profits, revenue growth, social satisfaction, speed, etc.). Shareholders looking for great returns, customers looking for great products, employees looking for exciting work, and communities looking for sustainable economics don’t really care if a company uses “innovation” or not. Now I’d certainly say that innovation must be used in our current increasingly dynamic economic environment, but I’m loath to insist on a specific definition or goal related to innovation. The point is that we should not get too hung up on defining our hammer and nails when the world doesn’t care how we fasten two boards together.

    Second, creating “the definition” of innovation and standard processes will stifle innovation, especially innovation on innovation. The notion of a standard process presumes two prerequisite conditions. 1) that we have enough scientifically valid evidence to judge which candidate innovation methods yield good/bad innovation outcomes. 2) that the future innovation milieu will look like past innovation milieu. I doubt either condition holds for innovation. The point is that putting innovation in it’s own box or silo seems ironic at best and dangerous at worst.

    Third, innovation must be context dependent. Innovation at a fast-fashion clothier (e.g. Zara) will look different than innovation at an aircraft company (e.g., Boeing). The first may measure innovation by the quantity and speed of new product introductions (e.g. Zara introduces 10,000 products per year). Yet would we say that Boeing isn’t innovative because they only introduce a new product once every 10 years? Boeing might measure innovation, in part, by patents on component technologies. So do we say that Zara isn’t innovative because it doesn’t patent its products? (As an aside, one could argue that patents are a sign of slow noninnovative companies because a true innovator obsoletes their own invention before the patent examiner gets his/her morning coffee). The point is that one size does not fit all in the world of innovation.

    Instead of standardizing innovation’s definition and processes, I’d strongly recommend a portfolio approach. That is, we’d have a list of potential defining measures and potential processes. Different companies and communities might use different definitions and processes at different times. Now a context-dependent portfolio approach to innovation may not help answer the “who’s community ranks X for innovation” but then a strict standardized innovation scorecard might actually reduce the true rate of innovation.

  2. Jeffrey- I agree we need standards. It’s a puzzle to me why so many ‘arts’ have standards and yet innovation still does not. Certainly they do not have to be so rigid as to box innovation in. But seems to me enough literature, studies and empirical evidence is there to be able to begin to establish fundamental standards. I would be very interested in collaborating with you on this. At the very least we could explore ways to increase the level of advocacy. I hope you will contact me when your schedule permits.
    Kind regards

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