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Innovation is Bloody

“Do you like our innovation room?” asked an executive at a Fortune 500 company, beaming like a proud parent. Looking past the multitude of whiteboards and beanbags, I was shocked to see a three letter word—in capitals no less—painted on the wall: FUN. 

No, no and NO. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am a business-card-carrying member of the innovation faithful and believe it is immensely fulfilling and represents our best selves. Innovation is also invaluable for organizations. Like information technology (IT) before it, innovation is moving from a nice-to-have addition to a must-have priority. According to a 2015 survey of US executives by the consulting firm Accenture, a staggering 84% responded that their organization’s long-term success was extremely or very dependent on innovation.

The challenge is that while the definition of innovation is simple (“something new + something useful”), actually doing it, especially in large organizations, is not always “fun” and is fraught with complications. Our numeric age of big data, micro-targeting and endless metrics has lulled us into thinking that everything can be counted and controlled. Innovation, by contrast, defies quantitative constraints, as it is a nonlinear process with emergent properties. In other words, one plus one can end up equaling ten—or zero—and the answer cannot be known beforehand. Indeed, in startup parlance a “pivot” refers to the common practice of having to move in a radically new direction; most famously demonstrated by Twitter, which began as a messaging side feature of the totally forgotten podcast directory Odeo. Innovation’s unexpectedness is increasingly out of step with our neat chronological expectations of quarterly earnings and annual performance reviews.  

Equally difficult is that innovation runs up against thousands of years of evolutionary hardwiring—what behavioral economists refer to as risk and ambiguity avoidance. Those early humans who rushed out of their cave hoping an unidentified noise was food rather than a predator tended to be the ones eaten first. However, this inherited hesitancy serves us less well in the modern world, where a comfortable status quo dampens our desire to innovate. For example, it is assumed that Kodak’s once dominant photographic film business was undermined by the advancing technology of the digital camera. In actuality, Kodak invented the first digital camera—way back in 1975—but failed to embrace its potential because it couldn’t leave the seemingly cozy photographic-film-cave. 

This challenge is further compounded by the fact that any innovation necessarily creates winners and losers in its wake and hence an inbuilt opposition. As Harvard professor Calestous Juma outlines in his excellent Innovation and Its Enemies, what we view today as the most innocuous improvements, like margarine, recorded music and coffee, faced bitter resistance and stilted adoption. He writes, “Fear of loss can lead individuals or groups to avoid change brought by innovation even if that means forgoing gains.” If innovation could write its autobiography it could easily be titled: How to lose friends and divide people

It is no surprise then that innovation has been reduced to a rhetorical safety blanket. Leaders, CEOs and politicians know innovation is important so they pay it some lip service, while refusing to acknowledge its real price. This is also why, according to academics Shaul Oreg and Jacob Goldenberg, the vast majority of new product innovation fails (up to 95% of the time by one measure).

We have before us a choice between struggle and pretense. As Winston Churchill similarly said about war and dishonor, we are choosing the latter and only intensifying the former. 

Instead, those leading innovation efforts should:

– Be honest: To borrow from Thomas Hobbes, the process of innovation is nasty, brutish and long. To deny that reality will rightly breed cynicism among listeners that you are merely repeating a buzzword with little substance.   

– Be smart: Do not ignore the political dimension, map potential supporters and opponents and develop messages and messengers that are persuasive to each audience.  

– Be open: A study by the psychologist Richard Wiseman demonstrated that being open can actually help you become luckier. So too, innovation demands an openness to new experiences and emerging opportunities. 

If I could return to that “innovation” room I first saw, I would paint another word on the wall. Something that would symbolize innovation is not antiseptic, impersonal, and distant, but messy, life-affirming, and irredeemably human—BLOODY.