Is Innovation Good or Bad? Yes!

An article by Pat Lencioni in Business Week called Why Companies Need Less Innovation has generated a bit of controversy, at least in the part of the internet that I live in. His basic premise is that it is a mistake to try to make an entire company innovative – instead, it is better to just let a few people in upper management innovate, while everyone else focuses on just doing their job. Here is his argument in a nutshell:

What should leaders do? Be more open to new ideas from employees? Probably not. Better yet, they should stop overhyping innovation to the masses and come to the realization that only a limited number of people in any company really needs to be innovative.

As heretical as that may seem to those who want to believe that “innovation is everyone’s business,” consider that even the most innovative and creative organizations need far more people to be dutiful, enthusiastic, and consistent in their work than innovative or creative.

Think about a movie set. For every writer or director or actor on the payroll, there are hordes of people who have to be technically proficient, consistent, patient, and disciplined in their responsibilities. If they innovate, the project turns to chaos.

I think this argument is wrong. Just watch the incredibly extensive ‘making of’ features on the Lord of the Rings dvds to see how wrong his movie-making example is. However, Lencioni’s main argument has already been effectively answered by Steve Denning (New defense of traditional management: firms need less innovation!), Ralph Ohr (Do Companies Need Less Innovation?), James Todhunter (Why Companies Need Pervasive Innovation) and Steve Denning again (More or Less Innovation? Duh!). All these are well worth reading, and I think that the title of the second Denning piece pretty well sums up my thoughts on the debate.

But there’s one point that I’d like to add – even though I spend all of my work time researching and talking about innovation, and trying to help organisations become more innovative, I don’t think that innovation is always good. Innovation is value-neutral.

What do I mean by that?

A parallel debate is going on over the impact of the internet. Some see it as an engine of pervasive positive change, while others argue that its impact is overwhelmingly negative. The arguments between technology optimists and pessimists are nicely summarised by L. Gordon Crovitz in his article Is Technology Good or Bad? Yes. The point that he makes is that technology is value-neutral – it is only our uses of it that are good or bad:

Among the schisms between these groups: that the Web promotes personalization that can become fragmentation; creates information abundance that can become information overload; allows for the creativity of amateurs while undermining the business models of professionals; and enables the wisdom of crowds that can result in the stupidity of the lowest common denominator.

This is an important point. Technology has both positive and negative impacts – and so does innovation. Innovation leads to all of the medical advances that have extended our life expectancies from 60 years in the late 19th century to 80 years now. Innovation has also led to the creation of the novel management structures that make it easier for terrorist organizations to operate.

I’m an innovation optimist. The research data overwhelmingly demonstrates that organisations that are more innovative are more profitable, and better places to work. Most of the time, the organisations that are more innovative do in fact have systems in place that help everyone innovate, not just a handful of people at the top.

However, if we are managing an innovative organisation, the question that we must consider is what goals do our innovations support? In order for innovation to be good, we need to be doing things that are worth doing.

By definition, innovations change the world. It’s up to us to make sure that our innovations change the world for the better.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “Is Innovation Good or Bad? Yes!

  1. Hi Tim,
    Good post. As I have commented elsewhere on blogs, I too don’t completely agree with Pat Lencioni’s arguments. However, I do think that there is an underlying message in his post that many are missing.

    It will be difficult to find firms out there that want to be called ‘not innovative’. This mental model is similar to the human behavior of wanting to be recognized by their peers. So what do they do? They go ahead and launch ‘innovation’ programs and initiatives to come out with ideas and thoughts for “future planning”.

    But here is the issue. Many of these companies have fundamental structural and cultural flaws in them that cannot sustain innovation. So it is in this regard I think the message of “less innovation” makes sense [temporarily].

    To be clear, I am not advocating that firm’s should stop innovating or as Pat alluded to, have innovation only come from top. I do believe that anyone can be innovative and should be. What I am suggesting is that firms should use a sizeable chunk of their time, effort, and resources to ensure they have a strong foundation to sustain innovations and a process to be truly innovative (and not just lip service).

    Anyway, hope I am making some sense here :-)


    • Hi Ned, thanks the comment. It makes good sense. James Todhunter makes that point as well. I’ve been giving some thought to the sorts of issues that you’re raising and I’ll probably write some more about them next week.

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