Innovation Is Too Easy

by Jeffrey Phillips

Hmm. I bet the post title got your attention, but of course in this modern age of digital content we bloggers need headlines that pop through all of the noise and gain attention. It helps, of course, that I’m of the opinion that the headline (provocative or outrageous) has, as Henry Kissinger once said, the added benefit of being true.

Innovation, as practiced today in most corporations, is far too “easy” and commercialization is far too difficult. What if that statement were reversed? What if innovation was challenging and difficult, and commercialization were easy? Let’s explore, shall we?

Innovation is easy, commercialization is difficult

Now, let’s get our language straight. When I write that “innovation is easy” what I mean is that innovation as practiced in many corporations is rapid, inexpert and quickly converges on a simple solution. Corporations assign teams without skills or experience, rapidly conduct “brainstorming” exercises based primarily on current opinion or past experience and move as quickly as possible to present a small handful of ideas to a wary executive team. Innovation rarely has the preparation, commitment or effort applied to it to really succeed. To many people, innovation appears to be a couple of meetings where they apply some unusual creativity tools, write some crazy ideas on a flipchart and return as soon as possible to their regular work. Innovation is a vacation from the day to day grind, but isn’t really expected to create meaningful results.

Without training, without skill development, without meaningful facilitation and without a well-defined scope and expected outcome, innovation is easy.

But commercialization is hard in this setting, for several reasons. First, since there’s not a lot of compelling new ideas, the existing products must produce more revenue and profits than initially expected.  Without a good pipeline of new solutions, the old solutions become more important, so companies look for methods to extend product life and add a few new features to existing products. This crowds the product development process and eliminates room for new concepts to enter. Second, since the few “ideas” that do make it to product development and commercialization are so poorly developed and defined, a tremendous amount of product definition that should have been done previously must be done in the product development and commercialization phases. Third, as the product development and commercialization teams get burned by inadequate or poor concepts from the innovation activities, these teams downplay and “back burner” new concepts and focus on existing products.

As long as innovation is easy (and the results are poor) commercialization will focus its attention on existing products and commercialization will seem difficult for innovators.

Let’s now consider the alternative, where innovation is “hard”, and commercialization is easy.

When I write “hard” I mean that innovation activities require careful planning, deep commitment from innovation teams, building skills and doing the work necessary to really generate great, valuable ideas. There is a sense of understanding market trends and competitive actions.  Innovation teams deeply consider customer needs and emerging opportunities. Internal ideas and external intellectual property are evaluated.  Prototypes are built, minimum viable products are constructed and tested. Consumers are quizzed about the solution and the value it provides. Specific product recommendations are made based on consumer feedback, confident ideation and product requirements.

This is hard work, and requires a deep commitment, skilled and trained people, an understanding of the process and the rationale for committing to this work, as well as financial and human resources. Innovation becomes more than a few sessions with a flip chart but an actual planned exercise to come up with game changing solutions, not just a few haphazard and interesting ideas.

If innovation is done effectively, can that make commercialization of the great ideas easier? I’m certain the answer is “yes” because we’ve seen this in action with our clients.  Product development and innovation become simpler for several reasons.

First, a trust reason: product development teams, marketers and others involved in commercialization have far more trust in a product or solution that’s generated from a defined innovation process, which has established its seriousness and its capability. Rather than carefully considering and then relegating ideas to the back burner, priorities are reworked to accelerate good ideas to market faster.

Second, a thoroughness reason. If the hard work is done in the innovation phase, product development and commercialization can do what they are supposed to do in their phase, rather than spend time reconsidering and reworking the product definition and requirements and confirming consumer demand.

Third, a pipeline reason.  If there are really compelling ideas that customers are clamoring for in the innovation pipeline, that can lead to more growth, more revenue and more profit.  This means that executives will prioritize good, new ideas over older, tired existing products.  Every firm wants a fresh, compelling but profitable pipeline of new products and services.  As soon as the “hard work” of innovation demonstrates it can create a pipeline of these solutions, the emphasis will be on accelerating them to market, rather than cautiously testing a small handful.

Resetting Expectations

For too long we’ve humored ourselves that a bare commitment to innovation would produce extraordinary results. You can witness this snide commitment in IBM commercials where entire “innovation” teams were lying on the floor in the dark, coming up with new ideas. Innovation is the most valuable, and probably the most difficult work within an organization, yet corporations constantly undersell the effort, under-staff it and move far too quickly and far too inexpertly. This is why Peter Drucker once said that marketing and innovation produce results, all the rest of business activity is costs.

We’ll know when corporations are serious about innovation not based on their words, but on the emphasis they place on doing innovation right, doing it well and doing it effectively. When innovation teams complain not about how difficult it is for ideas to be accepted, but how hard their executives work them to get the right ideas.

image credit: innovation graphic image from bigstock

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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 Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.  Follow him @ovoinnovation

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