Is it possible to be too innovative?
Helen Walters points to an interesting post by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen called Over-Innovation Makes U.S. Firms Suck At Sustainability, which argues that it is.
They argue that the high levels of US carbon emissions are due to too much innovation:
The heart of the problem is that American brands push more and more products on the consumer without mechanisms for re-usage. With ever-shortening product life cycles, the problem is only getting worse.
Our experience tells us that it is exactly because American companies are so amazingly innovative, entrepreneurial, and intensely competitive that they can’t find ways to deal with the global challenges. Finding sustainable solutions isn’t about discovering new, ever-more disruptive ideas. It requires the opposite, something very un-American: standardization, slowness, and centralization. To most, more ideas are always better. But in this case, the more green solutions we have, the less effective and efficient processes become.
Both are correct.
Here’s the thing: innovation is executing new ideas to create value, it’s not just making more stuff. It’s not about about ideas. It’s not about novelty.
Skibsted and Hansen have an example of kind of thinking that can support sustainability:
In theory, you can grow in two ways: You can produce more, or you can add extra value to what you already produce. The latter is the way toward sustainability.
Take Starbucks: Despite the company’s impressive growth, it has hardly increased the amount of coffee beans the world consumes. Instead, it has grown by finding numerous clever ways to create value in all parts of the value chain — everything from interior design, product innovation, marketing, and services. More American brands must learn that they can minimize the consumption of goods but increase total consumption at the same time.
All of those value creation strategies that they are talking about are innovations.
The problem isn’t too much innovation – it’s bad innovation. Innovation that is divorced from a strong focus on creating genuine value is bad inovation.
Umair Haque’s great blog consistently tries to address this issue. Innovation is no good if it doesn’t create deep value. Here’s what he says in his latest post:
The pursuit of more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier too often seems to demand putting what, why, and who we love at the end of the list, the underworld of the inbox, the bottom of the heap. That’s a recipe for stagnation, whether for people, communities, cities, countries, or the globe. But the converse might just hold, too: if nations and corporations want to punch past the glass ceiling of mere opulence, to what I call eudaimonic prosperity — lives that are meaningfully well lived — well, then people might just have to begin by making if not radically, then at least marginally more meaningful choices themselves.
The problem isn’t over-innovation – it’s under-innovation in terms of creating value. To be successful, innovation must support strategy. To be sustainable, innovation must create value.