How NOT To Innovate

by Jeff Rubingh

“The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.” — Dee Hock

How NOT To InnovateLiberal vs. conservative, PC vs. Mac, Chevy vs. Ford. Seems there’s always two points of view, two approaches, two views. Or there’s a continuum. What about “innovation”? What are the opposing approaches to innovation?

For companies, it’s all about competing. It’s all about competing. Just starting out? How do you get a foothold? In the middle of the pack? How can you get to the front? Are you the leader? How do you stay there? The answer is and will always be — innovate!

Of course, maintain and grow your current business. Of course, serve your customers better. But does this just involve doing things smarter, better, faster? Or do you need to adapt and change? Do you need to constantly rethink products, services and perhaps most of all, processes? How do you get the new, innovative thoughts into your mind and the old ones out?

It does seem that many companies talk about “innovation.” It does seem that many companies even give it a go. It also seems that most companies are fundamentally bad at it. From the outside in, it seems that there is an upside down understanding of “innovation.” When you really look at some companies’ efforts, it’s almost as if they went about trying to ensure innovation doesn’t happen. It’s almost as if they’re following in lockstep my tongue-in-cheek guide below.

So, if you want a guide on “How NOT To Innovate”, try this approach:

Don’t Rock the Boat

  • Have a detailed plan that maps out all the steps over the next year or two; realize that — creating new products, developing new processes — innovation — your thoughtful smart people can figure much of this out beforehand, then it’s just a matter of following the recipe
  • Make sure your company knows precisely how it has always made money and that everyone just tries to do that faster, better and smarter
  • If you’re an industry leader, innovation is risky so do it “safely”, sit on your lead a bit
  • If you’re in the middle of the pack, keep plugging away; soon, with incremental gains you’ll have made headway
  • Put in place a deliberate, public, “innovation” process, stepped and managed; that way, no one will submit foolish ideas or waste people’s time with frivolous and fruitless investment

Manage Creativity

  • Manage by committee, make slow deliberate decisions, make sure everyone knows to get approval for each stage of invention
  • Ensure all new ideas are very “smart”; when someone creates a “far out” idea, scrutinize it publicly so everyone knows what’s creatively de rigueur
  • Ensure politics are in place around who the “idea” people are, know your place
  • Discourage desires for new, cool things by subtly labeling them “a bit out there”
  • Make sure people who roll out new ideas feel most comfortable when they’re sure it will have support from everyone
  • Don’t tolerate ambiguity, make sure you’ve got it pretty much figured out before you proceed

Make Safe Bets

  • Create a culture of “Be careful, try things yes, but have a plan, don’t let it interfere with the business, get approval so no one can say you were wasting time or money”
  • Ensure that risk minimization is top of mind
  • Keep your tries to a minimum, don’t “blow” time and expense on trying too many things; again, we’re here to make money, not to feed the creative (but expensive) itch
  • Only reward the successes, and remember, determining “success” takes a while
  • Create a culture of discouraging “mistakes” or “wasted effort”
  • Don’t invest in efforts where the ROI isn’t clear from the get-go
  • Reinforce cultural mores that reward conventional success and discourage risk taking

Engineer Talent Carefully

  • Hire from a recipe, here’s the list of skills and the personality profile, go find them
  • Make sure there’s a need and position that matches each new hire
  • Avoid “opportunity” hires (see ‘Make Safe Bets’)
  • Promote those who follow the convention, who get along, who don’t create waves
  • Address employee attrition by rewarding those who maintain the status quo the best
  • Ensure political correctness is a criteria for suggesting innovation


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Jeff RubinghJeff Rubingh is a technology innovation expert, consultant and analyst. Focused on the intersection between technology and business, Jeff helps clients identify ground-breaking solutions that maximize ROI across existing and emerging technology disciplines.

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  1. Couldn’t agree more.

    I think the biggest How Not to innovate is to approach your innovation in the same way as you approah your existing business. Doing innovation repeatedly well takes a completely different business model to your existing business.

  2. There are so many thing wrong with this article that at first I couldn’t figure out why it was written this way. Then I realized that the advice is, in a word, too generalized, the situations described are too ambiguous. Then I realized what the problem was and it is the same problem with the entire innovation “industry” – no one understands what creativity really is or where it comes from or its role in innovation. That’s why there’s ideas being promoted like “smartfailing” (how about NOT failing?).

    Here, I believe that Jeff has never spent any serious length of time around really creative people, otherwise he would know that most of his advice under “Engineer Talent Carefully” is wrong, for example. Mind you, I realize that what he’s saying there, in his opinion, is wrong. What I’m saying is that it is actually the opposite – if done correctly, it’s right.

    Half of the advice that he gives in this article (or close to it ) if followed would result in chaos *if* there were truly, highly creative people operating in that work environment. But the fact is, in most work environments, there aren’t. And the reason why that is is because there’s no one that knows the real way to train them. It always comes back to that. Always.

    So we have an industry that in part was spawned from the creativity industry which was driven by motivational speakers trying to expand their repertoire who never really understood creativity in the first place. Proof was easy enough to acquire – just ask any of them how many ways had they applied their own creative skills in their own lives (i.e. what creative things did you do before you started trying to tell other people what to do). I know because I did that. The most ever was 5. The average, 3. Of that, the most, if at all, of those areas where breakthrough or exceptional work resulted, equaled no more than 1 or2. Mine is over 30 and 19.

    I don’t think Jeff has ever been around people who would score say 10 and 4 or higher. But that’s where businesses should be trying to get their people. When that starts to happen then a shift will occur and advice like the above will have to be thrown out, and that day is coming. The real disruptive technology of the near future will be the hyper creative human mind and it is very clear, from most of what I’ve been reading, that people like Jeff Rubingh and Stefan Lindgaard will be lost and the companies that followed their advice had better watch out for the ones that embrace the hyper model…

  3. I like Jeff and his ways of writing, however I think this post if naively built on the myths of innovative companies: first and foremost innovative companies are not meeting places for a bunch of creative dudes, that try to launch new products without any supervision. Moreover ‘Politics’ exist in smaller or large organization. Politics can be bad for business in general, not only for innovation but are a part of some companies’ culture. That does not make this companies less innovative than other. If your ideas are always shut down by politics, they are either not good enough, or not well communicated. If you don’t fit the culture of a company you should simply move to a different company!
    Also innovation processes are there to ensure that the company can make the right bets within their Vision. Do we agree that there must be criteria for selecting ideas? or a company should try about any idea that any employees comes with?
    Having said that I do agree that a culture which cannot deal properly with failure coming from trying new ideas, is set to destroy innovation.

  4. Dear Filberto and Yancario:

    WELCOME! You are the first so far that I’ve seen respond to anything that I’ve written or written about. Both of you have good points. In the article you suggested, Yancario, there was an excellent example of a walking meeting which I agree is a great idea. In the article it gave examples, however, of people being against it and the article used that to suggest that people don’t like change. Guess what? Those people are good examples of people who hadn’t been trained to even be able to appreciate creative change and to understand how it could empower them, even in their *private* lives. It is a great example of how the so-called gurus of the innovation industry only have pieces of the puzzle that they’re touting and that’s why they’re constantly having to adjust their strategies and techniques. They lack a holistic approach to the problem.

    Filberto, you had very good comments about how internal politics can kill innovation efforts. Again, another example of how the lack of a holistic approach to increasing innovation in the workplace can lead to failure. And yes, I agree that there should be a criteria for selecting ideas, but even more so, there should be first an effort on better training on how those ideas are generated in the first place. By doing that, you also avoid the idea of “smartfailing” because you learn to avoid failure to begin with.

    This is the first time that I’ve seen any posts that followed mine and I am very happy to see that both of you came up with very cogent ideas to add to the discussion. I enjoyed reading what you had to say and I’m very happy to finally see people here that are thinking about some of these issues and not just reading articles and then pinging them.

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