Innovation as a Path to Disruption
Proverb, five centuries old: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” And, for nearly two of those centuries, Industrial Era necessities sparked inventions that continue to shape the world around us. Henry Ford delivered the Model-T and factory assembly lines. Toyota perfected lean manufacturing. Two world wars spawned incredibly efficient transportation and production models – and, eventually, the peaceful application of nuclear energy (as well as a more dangerous world).
But something very different is happening today, and necessity is not its mother. It’s happening all around us. It is disrupting old business models driven by efficiency and productivity. It is accelerating technological, social, and political change. It is opening new markets around the world. It’s creating more dangerous adversaries. We are struggling to understand it, harness it, and apply it. Whatever it is, we want more of it. Leaders across the public and private sectors are trolling Silicon Valley in the hopes of harnessing all its promise.
It is Innovation.
And if necessity has been the mother of invention for the last 200 years; innovation is now the Father of Necessity.
Here’s the problem: most leaders and organizations begin their innovation quest with a predefined need that ultimately constrains the potential ROI – return on innovation. “I need to be faster, better, leaner, smarter.” Necessity-driven inventions certainly have given the world some wonderful gifts, but satisfying needs don’t produce game-changing or paradigm shifting innovation. Sometimes, innovation for the sake of innovation spells inefficiency (or worse).
Let me offer an instructive example.
The U.S. military is searching for a “Strategic Offset” to sustain our Armed Forces’ technological superiority for the next generation. Military leaders have embarked on an “Innovation Initiative” that has taken the Defense Department to Google, Amazon, and Facebook among others. Spoiler alert: It isn’t in Silicon Valley. The answer to It (the ability to innovate and the challenges preventing innovation) exists right inside DOD.
While our example above is about the military, the lessons and challenges are ubiquitous: Organization A looks to Organization B for a successful innovation model. A attempts to adopt B’s innovation model and it doesn’t work.
Innovation occurs within an ecosystem. Innovation ecosystems are seeded by an organization’s culture and grown by the interactions between its people, processes, technology, relationships, and customers. Non-native plants introduced into new ecosystems usually die or become invasive.
In our case, Organization A (the military) is a requirements-driven ecosystem with prescriptive and inward-looking business processes. Whereas Organization B (insert Silicon Valley organization) is an externally focused ecosystem that values knowing what customers want before they know they want it.
So what does this mean? What I can I take from this and how do I proceed? If need doesn’t drive innovation then what does? I have worked with dozens of organizations across the public and private sector that want to be more innovative. Here’s what I’ve learned: If you or someone in your organization says, “we need to be more innovative,” ask: Why? To what end? What’s stopping us? And, what does being innovative really mean for us.
Those are hard questions to answer and they are too often ignored. But when you find the right answers to those questions you’ll find that the innovative potential you’ve been looking for is right inside your organization. It is tempting to look outside your organization for an easy answer and best practices. Everyone wants the quick fix; the innovation silver bullet.
Remember, necessity is the mother of invention, not innovation. Google solved a discovery problem the world didn’t have. Apple has provided society with products we didn’t know we needed. And their ability to innovate didn’t begin with the premise “I need to be more innovative.” It began with a compelling vision of the world they wanted to create and how they wanted to influence it. They defined a core purpose that allowed people to break with conventional problem-solving models and behaviors that unleashed the innovative potential within their own organizations. They nurtured and grew innovation ecosystems reflecting their unique vision of the world and their place in it. Their ability to innovate became a natural part of their organization’s culture – what they value.
If you’re looking to import “successful” innovation models into your own organization, your search probably won’t return the results you are seeking.
Best case: the effort dies. Worst case: the effort becomes invasive.
If being innovative was as simple as importing a “proven” model, everyone would be innovative. Unfortunately, in today’s rapidly changing and hyper-competitive world, the answer is never that simple and the right answer today probably won’t be the right answer a year from now.
Finding your own Strategic Offset
We have to acknowledge that trying to employ a ‘textbook’ response is bound to fail in this environment. It’s nearly impossible to act with agility in a world where every day is significantly different from the last; especially, if you’re relying on prescriptions and best practices.
If you can’t define what innovation really means for you and your organization, you will never recognize it. And if you can’t recognize it, you will certainly never be able to encourage it or apply it. The organizations that stand as the new paragons of innovation know what they want to do, they know how to get there, and they understand what barriers they’ll have to overcome. They replace linear, sequential problem-solving paradigms with adaptive, orthogonal thinking constructs that allow leaders and organizations to:
1. Understand their core purpose; the problem and opportunity space they live in and the customers they serve (even if the world around them and their customers don’t).
2. Articulate why and how innovation is important to the organization’s growth or mission success. They can answer – with clarity – what successful innovation looks like for them.
3. Discover potential barriers to success – real and perceived.
4. Pursue actions to control or influence outcomes that overcome real barriers and discard perceived ones.
Consider that when Apple created the first iPhone, it wasn’t in response to a mandate to fill a gap in the marketplace. The iPhone was conceived of an idea and brought to the world by a team of people who shared a vision of what the product could do. The iPhone was a game changer that didn’t solve an existing problem. It defined a solution to a set of needs that didn’t yet exist.
Adapting to Overcome Barriers
For many leaders, approaching innovation with this mindset might make a lot of sense, but the task of reimagining the organization’s core purpose or nurturing a cultural shift are not easy tasks. We recommend that you begin this process by asking two core questions:
How can I manage my organization’s fear of change? Most fear is perceived. You can mitigate paralysis by aligning your vision, values, purpose, and culture to reframe barriers and shift problem-solving paradigms. Often, the simple process of qualifying your challenges makes them easier to manage.
How can I get my organization to adapt? Once the question above is resolved, the answer here becomes much easier. Pushing an organization to distinguish between real and perceived barriers as well as understanding their root causes creates a tremendous feeling of control and self-empowerment. That ownership allows people to act. When ownership and action are guided by a vision, values, and core purpose you’ve got a powerful recipe for successful innovation.
So, consider how well your organization is prepared to build an innovation ecosystem where ideas can flourish from anywhere and maybe even father future necessity. And remember, if you’re on a mission to innovate and you are trying to use someone else’s silver bullet, you’re bound to miss the target.
It is time to take a critical look at what is driving your innovation offset.