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Jeffrey Phillips

Quality Insider

Making Sacrifices for Innovation

Everyone wants to work for a company that’s changing the world

Published: Tuesday, January 13, 2015 - 11:08

A post by Jeff DeGraff prompted me to write this. His post was titled, “What Are You Willing to Give Up for Innovation?” although on a closer read he’s not really suggesting that you give up anything. However, most executives believe that “doing” innovation involves a ratio of tradeoffs, sacrificing some other project, goal, or capability. Such zero-sum thinking will never tip the scale in the right direction. Here’s why.

If you keep doing what you’re already doing and are reasonably adept at doing, you can anticipate approximately the same returns, unless a major disruption in your market happens. If you attempt innovation, and you aren’t particularly adept at innovation, you may end up with a less-than-satisfactory result. Given the nature of innovation, even good innovators don’t hit home runs every time. So the equation boils down to preferring consistent singles and doubles vs. the possibility of a home run or nothing. When innovation is cast in this light, most managers will play small ball because predictability and marginal growth are rewarded over the short run, and disruption occurs only rarely in the marketplace.

Of course, this model is developed with a number of assumptions. The two most important are that it’s difficult to become a better player in the game, and the conditions and rules about the game never change. That is, you can’t improve the odds of a home run, and the playing field and the rules won’t change, or will change very slowly, giving you time to react.

But what if neither of these assumptions is true?

We know the first isn't true. You can develop better innovators or hire the skills to innovate more effectively. Whether you choose to “insource” and develop innovation skills or “outsource” innovation to trusted partners, your company can become more adept at innovation. Managers can be encouraged to be more circumspect in their singles and doubles vs. their home-run thinking.

It turns out the second condition also isn’t true. We’ve built organizations, corporate structures, and hierarchies based on business models from the 19th century, but the pace of change as well as the nature of markets, consumers, and competitors, is evolving rapidly. It wasn’t that long ago that Borders bookstore was a Wall Street darling, but Internet commerce made its business model—and many other booksellers’ models—obsolete. The market you compete in, the expectations of your customers, and the types of competitors you face are changing very quickly. Playing for singles and doubles while the playing field changes may leave your team further and further behind.

Too many managers and too many business models work on outdated premises. These suggest that you must sacrifice too much for too little gain to do innovation. It would be beside the point to argue that innovation doesn’t require some sacrifice. Any new initiative or change in corporate direction will require some sacrifice or rebalancing of resources. Cultural inertia in places where innovation isn’t a frequent activity will require the investment of personal capital and enough energy to spark momentum. But once the skills are learned, and the culture and people are aware of innovation’s importance, they will provide more energy and enthusiasm because everyone wants to be part of something new.

You see, we managers believe that people view their jobs as zero-sum games as well—that they put in only the minimum to accomplish the tasks they’re assigned. What we fail to realize is we can call on their sense of adventure, their desire to create something new. When people truly believe they’ll have this opportunity, they’ll commit more of themselves to the effort. Thus, we believe there is a much deeper reservoir of resources and energy that managers aren’t tapping today.

It’s possible to ask for more innovation. Once people believe you are serious, and that they can actually create new products and services that matter to themselves and customers, more time and more resources will be available, if for no other reason than your employees will want to see the ideas succeed. Everyone wants to work for a company that is changing the world. If all you ask people to do is maintain the status quo, that’s all they’ll do. Once you ask people to put a dent in the universe, and demonstrate that you mean it, they’ll do more, and do so happily.

Do you need to sacrifice something for innovation? Yes, the first time you attempt innovation you’ll be forced into tradeoffs. But with the right communication and commitment levels, the right cultural preparation, and the right executive commitment, you can replace zero-sum thinking with a strategy for successful home runs.

First published Jan. 6, 2015, on the Innovate on Purpose blog.


About The Author

Jeffrey Phillips’s picture

Jeffrey Phillips

Jeffrey Phillips is the lead innovation consultant for OVO, which offers assessments, consulting, training and team definition, change management, innovation workshops, and idea generation space and services. Phillips has led innovation projects in the United States, Western Europe, South Africa, Latin American, Malaysia, Dubai, and Turkey. He has expertise in the entire “front end of innovation” with specific focus on trend spotting and scenario planning, obtaining customer insights, defining an innovation process, and open innovation. He’s the author of Relentless Innovation (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and 20 Mistakes Innovators Make (Amazon Digital Services, 2013), and co-author of OutManeuver: OutThink—Don’t OutSpend (Xlibris, 2016).