Is Innovation Really Everyone's Job?

by Kevin McFarthing

Recently I was reminded of the famous scene in the film, Spartacus, where all the slaves shout “I’m Spartacus”.  The prompt was another statement that innovation is everybody’s job.  It’s fairly common, for example a thread on the Beyond Innovation group page on LinkedIn, running a poll on the subject “Innovation is Everyone’s Job”; it’s in blogs (“Innovation Is Everyone’s Job” and “Integrated Innovation: How to Make Innovation Everyone’s Job”) and books (Innovation is Everybody’s Business).

Two recent #Innochat sessions (this Twitter chat is every Thursday at 12pm EDT/5pm UK) also covered the question of whether innovation is everybody’s job.  I moderated one of these chats because the concept of everybody in a company doing innovation bothers me.

The first Innochat featured an article by Jack and Suzy Welch going through this argument.  They had me in full agreement, particularly with the phrase “Find a better way every day”, until he got to the point of classing it all as innovation.  As John Lewis’ question from the first chat said, “If every incremental improvement contributes to innovation, what is not innovation?

Innovation and value

I like to define innovation as “the introduction of new products or services that add value to your business”; increasingly business models can be added to the definition.  There are many other definitions, of course, and many different types of innovation, for example the Doblin model of ten types of innovation. Major changes in how companies work, sometimes referred to as Operational Innovation, can also add significant value to the business.

No matter which definition is used, it should be something that adds value, and in order to add value it must be implemented; it’s not just an idea.

Scale of innovation

The biggest difference to a company’s ability to survive and thrive comes from its output of new products, services and business models, and substantial changes to operations. There’s a big difference between relatively large initiatives (innovation) and minor or daily changes in working practices (improvement).  And not everybody can be directly involved in the full process of delivering innovation.

To put it another way – innovation is for big stuff, improvement is for small stuff. Big stuff is customer-facing new products and services, including incremental innovations, and major operational change.  Small stuff is everyday improvement.  Please don’t read this the wrong way; improving all aspects of a business is essential and valuable; Jack and Suzy Welch are right, everybody should be doing it; it just isn’t all innovation.

Why can’t everyone innovate?

And yet, and yet…..  Doesn’t all this smack of elitism?  Why can’t everybody improve the business?  And if it’s new and adds value, why can’t we call it innovation even if it’s small?  Do we want to be bureaucratic about it?  In short, why can’t every employee be an innovator?

The danger of saying “we’re all innovators” is that it dilutes the role of the teams whose primary responsibility is innovation. Unless responsibility and accountability for innovation are clear, confusion and inefficiency will potentially inhibit the output; innovation is then in danger of becoming a diminished buzzword.

Equally, innovation isn’t the preserve of a lone genius in a darkened room, with the rest of the company anxiously waiting for the Eureka moment.  Ideas are usually collective; execution comes from cross-functional teams; and good companies show innovation leadership.

It may also make sense to involve many people in the early stages of innovation, the creative or definition stage. Many companies have idea or suggestion schemes and use internal crowdsourcing via idea management platforms, either to generate or to evaluate ideas.  Regardless of your view of traditional suggestion schemes, the intent may be positive but the experience variable. This is creativity, and again blurs the picture if it’s classed as innovation. Involving people as “innovators” in ineffective idea generation schemes can also damage the internal perception of innovation.

So perhaps everybody can contribute to the input; but not everybody can deliver the output of innovation. There should be a clear difference between innovation that grows the top line or that gives a major uplift to the bottom line, and small changes that collectively improve the way the company operates. Not everybody is Spartacus.

Thanks to @JohnWLewis for hosting the first innochat and commenting on the original framing post. You may also wish to read the Innochat transcripts here and here.

image credit: universal pictures

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  1. I find this very frustrating. In many organizations, innovation is not everyone’s job, but it could and should be. You are making a distinction based on outcomes – not on process or mindset. What is the distinction between a big process improvement and a small product innovation? Why are the sum of many small innovations less important that one big innovation? Is any big innovation actually a single innovation and not the sum of many smaller innovations?

    The distinction between internal continuous improvement and external customer-facing innovation would be hard to see if you visited the innovators at work. They both seek to understand the current state and the gap to the desired state. They both try to imagine ways to close the gap and maybe quick ways to prototype the solution. They both use a combination of analysis and intuition, observation and experience to find a way. If it is new and useful, it is innovation.

    Most organizations support a spectrum of innovation from low risk/small return to high risk/high reward innovation. Good organizations balance their investment across the spectrum, but do not diminish one end of the spectrum by excluding it from the innovation conversation.

    The real contrast is not big/small, but status quo/change. If the job is maintain the status quo, then your job might not be to innovate. Most jobs include opportunities for improvement, and people in those roles could be innovators.

    • Kevin McFarthing

      Hi M A, thank you for the comment and sorry for the delay in replying, I’ve been on holiday. I agree that often the approach between small improvements and large innovations may be the same, albeit on a different scale. I don’t apologise for making a distinction based on outcomes, as outcomes grow the business. This is the nub of my concern with every improvement being classed as innovation. It can generate the situation where despite so much “innovation” going on, the company isn’t growing. I think it is much better to distinguish between improvement and innovation, on an outcome basis, and support the process and mindset that leads to both.

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