Four Key Innovation Contradictions

by Jeffrey Phillips

Four Key Innovation ContradictionsWhy is it that something as important as innovation should be so fraught with contradictions? Today, as I was leading an innovation training class for a client, I stopped to think about the number and variety of contradictions that are embodied in successful innovation. In fact these contradictions are what make innovation so difficult.

The first contradiction is that innovation requires a business to embrace processes and methods that are far different from the efficient, effective processes that sustain short term profitability. Innovation creates new, risky, uncertain concepts that will pay off in quarters if not years. Most “business as usual” processes reject these kind of ideas as contradictory to the existing operating model. Which is like eating your seed corn. I addressed this issue in my book Relentless Innovation.

The second contradiction is that while executives want innovation, they don’t want the disruption or investment that innovation requires. This simultaneous demand for innovation results and refusal to invest in innovation efforts creates dissonance in the teams that are actively trying to do interesting innovation work, and leads to confusion and then cynicism.

The third contradiction focuses on the importance of transparency, visibility and commitment. Most innovation activities are isolated in the far reaches of a business, far from prying eyes and easily swept under the rug if the innovation doesn’t pan out. In an era of vocal leaders, we need far more emphasis on innovation, rather than the circumspect way many organizations approach innovation, out of sight and out of mind. Doing innovation work is tough, and doing it without the full support of the senior team, constantly demonstrated, means that many innovators have far fewer resources than they need.

The fourth contradiction, and perhaps the biggest barrier to innovation, is the contradiction between what we TELL people to do and what we PAY people to do. Often we express the importance of innovation and assign people to innovation teams. We ask them to do important work, creating new products or services. Yet we do nothing to change how these individuals are evaluated, compensated and rewarded. In fact most of these people are held accountable in their evaluation period to the work they did in their “day job”. Which leaves the potential innovator in an awkward position – follow his or her passion and spend time on innovation that may detract from success in the day job, or work on the day job and give short shrift to innovation.

There are more contradictions than these I’ve listed. I hope you’ll be willing to add your own in the comments section. Perhaps my other favorite is the old saw about protecting interesting ideas from others, to keep them from stealing your ideas. If an idea is truly unique and disruptive, you won’t have to worry about anyone stealing it – you’ll have to cram it down their throat to get them to pay attention. Oh, the irony of it all. Perhaps it can best be said that good innovators are people who recognize the irony in their work.

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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 innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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  1. Dissonance is a vital concept and one I’ll be exploring through the medium of music as Rock’n’Roll Innovation editor here. In music we can profit from dissonance – just think of the opening lines of Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones of Jon Lord’s glorious keyboard work with Deeo Purple. In business cognitive dissonance costs companies millions if it cannot be tolerated, through dissipated effort, lack of focus, fruitless conflict etc.

    Furthermore, innovative ideas should not be screened through ‘business as usual’ criteria – if they are, they are quite likely to be rejected. I prefer the ‘NAF’ criteria – Novelty, Appropriateness and Feasibility using existing resources or ones that can be acquired.

    Great post – thanks

    Peter Cook – Rock & Roll Editor for Innovation Excellence
    Author ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n’Roll’ and ‘Punk Rock People Management’

  2. A very interesting point.

    A further contradiction I see is internal VERSUS external focus.

    Innovation is so often concerned with R&D and a desire for internal solutions, new designs, product improvement. In reality, most genuine innovation extends from external collaboration – engaging with new suppliers, industry allies, new markets and important customers. ( See my posts on this Collaboration The Key Driver http://goo.gl/7izxU and More Myths of Innovation – here goo.gl/EluRp )

    It reminds me of the Complexity & Paradox principle. This is apparent when businesses seek to use new technology and restructure to gain product and service improvements to address declines in service and sales. The Paradox is that the new technology and systems often creates new levels of Complexity whilst failing to deliver as promised improvements (see CRM,eCommerce, Seth Godin’s – Meatball Sundae etc…) – and it can lead to less focus on customer and service improvements..

    So – a new managagment team arrive, with a new strategy – often, reliant upon new technology. Which creates more Complexity. Thu – the ever ending loop of decline; Complexity and Paradox.

    Likewise, as pointed out by Jeffrey Phillios, there is a real contradiction that the very things that are needed to create innovation, are not the kind of activities that businesses really want to do. Its a bit of a paradox…

    Best regards,

    Andrew Armour

    http://www.benchstone.co.uk
    http://www.andrewarmour.com

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