HBR: Saying No to Innovation-in-General

Filed Under Innovation

Finance concept: Light Bulb on computer keyboard background
Arwen Heredia

February 20, 2014

As innovation continues to charge its way to the top of the strategy ladder in enterprise organizations, there’s bound to be some confusion over what it is that we’re really trying to accomplish. One of the consequences of moving towards an undefined goal is that you end up trying to build solid methodology on top of shaky ideals. It just doesn’t work.

A recent piece from Harvard Business Review discusses in detail how necessary it is for businesses to be clear about what it means to be driving innovation. “Without more specification, ‘innovation’ is simply too broad to execute against,” says Maxwell Wessel. “It’s like talking about creating art, without specifying between medium. Are you painting, sculpting, filmmaking, or rapping?” In most business cases, you’ll need to ask what purpose, type, and level of innovation you’re really after, or your initiatives are basically doomed before they start.

Innovation Overload

“At its highest level, innovation is simply where ideation meets commercialization,” says Wessel. True — and unfortunately, that’s where most companies stop trying to define it. But without a solid direction to go in, you’re essentially asking the project team to wing it, meaning that whatever preconceived expectations you had are likely not going to be met. “Without differentiating between things like sustaining and disruptive innovations,” says Wessel, “the conversation never directs managers to the nitty-gritty details where new products and services live or die.”

In addition to narrowing down desired outputs, making them focused and measurable, and zeroing in on how ideation can lead to innovative achievements, it’s absolutely imperative to consider the quality of ideas over the volume. While it’s true that myriad ideas may provide a greater probability of surfacing brilliant concepts that become innovations, not all ideas are created equal, and they shouldn’t be treated as though they are. Says Wessel, “When it comes to innovation, our muddled-generic language represents muddled-generic thinking — not the clarity of thinking that should be driving multi-billion dollar investment decisions.”

Concrete Flexibility

On the other hand, some managers take it too far, confusing clarity with outright control. This is especially possible when decision-makers and stakeholders do have outcomes they want to see manifested. And this is the line has to be carefully navigated when diving into innovation management: goals must be structured enough to be tied to other initiatives and resources and flexible enough to accommodate change and variation. Clear communication of these criteria will be a deciding factor in the success of any end-results, so it’s pretty important that doing so be considered up front, before things have a chance to run off course entirely.

From Wessel: “Our lack of thoughtfulness on the subject has kept us from investing and concentrating on the innovations that matter most. Increased attention on innovation by businesspeople has led to millions more executives with “innovation” in their sights, but far fewer with a deep understanding of what the word means.”

Bottom line? You don’t want to be left behind and merely aiming for innovation; you want to be focused and achieving it, again and again.

Read the full piece here.

Want to learn more about enterprise innovation management? Check out Mindjet’s SpigitEngage.