Innovation is Impossible

James Altucher recently suggested that “Eat All You Want of the Foods You Love and Still Lose Weight” would be a great book title – that no matter what was inside, it would sell. It’s easy to see why. Many of us like to eat all we want of the foods we love, and we also want to lose weight, so if we could do both at the same time, wouldn’t that be great?

Well, maybe.

In his new book Relentless Innovation: What Works, What Doesn’t–And What That Means For Your Business, Jeffrey Phillips points out a similar innovation paradox:

Everyone understands from the beginning how difficult it is to create compelling new ideas in any sutation, much less to convert those ideas into viable products and services. To compound the difficulty, executives are asking for disruptive ideas while expecting the business to continue to operate at full effectiveness and efficiency. Middle managers receive these messages and understand the unspoken dichotomy in the request: create radical, valuable new products and services but don’t upset the status quo.

Phillips nails the problem – many firms want an innovation program create radical, valuable new products and services but don’t upset the status quo.

If that’s what you want, innovation is impossible.

Relentless Innovation is a very good book. One of the key points that Phillips makes is that one of the major obstacles to innovation is the emphasis that many firms have on efficiency. You can innovate to become more efficient, and many firms do this well. However, to be successful over time, you also need to develop new products and services, and you can’t do this just through efficiency.

Here is a big part of the reason for that. Efficiency is all about reducing variation. When you’re a manufacturer, and you’re using statistical process control to improve the quality of your products, then this is great.

However, innovation that creates new products and services, requires increased variation. You have to try things that you’ve never done before, experiment, fail, learn, and get feedback from customers. This is the diametric opposite of increasing efficiency. Here is how Phillips puts it:

You must shift your thinking to recognize that experimentation and prototyping is as much about discovery and new insights as it is about validation of internal perspectives and theories. Your firm must make it far easier to test ideas, gain new insights, and “fail forward.”

In addition to increasing your experiment rate, Relentless Innovation includes a number of other practical steps you can take if you find yourself in a situation where innovation is impossible (you can check out Jeffrey’s blog too for more – Innovate on Purpose).

To innovate well, you have to become comfortable with disturbing the status quo. Deborah Mills-Scofield addresses this very well in a recent post – listing status quo objections to innovation and good response to each.

You also have to be able to maintain a focus on efficiency while also generating great new ideas. Efficiency reduces variation, but great new ideas increase variation. This is another of the ten tensions in innovation that must be balanced. In each of these situations, you need to think “both-and”, rather than taking an “Either-or” approach.

If you want to innovate without changing anything, then innovation is impossible. To get around this problem, you need to align innovation with your strategy, and build a capability for innovating consistently within your organisation. It’s not easy, but it is possible. Relentless Innovation gives us some good ideas about how to do this, and that makes it worth a read.

Note: If you want a more conventional review of the book (I’m lousy at reviewing), check out this one by Jorge Barba.

Disclaimer: I know and like Jeffrey, and I received a free pdf of the book. I also bought my own copy. I’m writing about the book because of its quality, not because of who wrote it or how I got it.

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.

11 thoughts on “Innovation is Impossible

  1. Whattaya mean, Tim? If I want ground-breaking, market-shaking innovation, I can’t hang onto the status quo and keep doing things the way I’ve always done them?

    Crazy talk, right there. ;)

    Trust is at the heart of every innovation. Somewhere, someone had to trust everything would be okay if the experiment failed. Discovery requires risk.

    Preach it.

  2. Hi Tim,

    I prefer to write:
    .
    Efficiency requires variability reduction within each production and also requires variety reduction in the number of different products to produce.
    .
    Innovation requires variety increase in the number of different products to produce, but still requires variability reduction durting the production of each product.

  3. Thanks for the comment. I mostly agree – although, you still need some variability within the production process if you are trying to innovate the process itself. In either case, it’s a tricky balance to maintain.

  4. Like you the book challenges what is all around us and if it is not uncomfortable reading for many and they are not simply recognizing this actually is going on around them causing the barriers to innovation then it should be.

    My fear, it is not enough of a manifesto to make the necessary changes but Jeffrey has flushed out to real truths here that need changing.

    Like you I know Jeffrey and respect his great innovation brain that just ‘ticks’ away at many of the real issues stopping innovation.

  5. That’s an interesting point about the manifesto Paul. I see what you’re saying, but on the other hand, I think you could give this to everyone whose organisation is trying to implement an innovation program, and they would all find it useful.

    Providing the motivation for real change is a huge issue, which we all probably need to be thinking about.

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