The Great Innovation Hi-jack: Part 1

By Alan Brew

You can’t avoid it. Innovation is everywhere.

Every business journal you pick up these days has an article or a special section devoted to the subject of innovation. There’s a steady stream of high-profile Innovation Summits attended by Chief Innovation Officers, numerous innovation seminars, multiple blogs (look out – here’s another) and thousands of books on the subject. By one estimate there are more than 41,000 books on innovation currently available on Amazon.

Innovation is hot and it’s sexy. Every company wants to be more innovative. An entire industry has sprung up to help companies to be more innovative. Every client list of desired brand attributes has “Innovation” vying for first place with close cousin “Agility.”

And yet, according to several McKinsey studies, many business managers say they are dissatisfied with their company’s ability to innovate. There’s a wide gap between a company’s desire to innovate and its ability to make innovation work.

What’s at the root of this disconnect? Why does innovation apparently frustrate and elude so many companies when they crave it so badly?

It has a lot to do with the word itself and what it has come to mean.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter first referred to innovation in his 1939 landmark study of business cycles when he used the word to mean bringing new products to market.

Its usage in business spread slowly but exploded into popular business vernacular after the publication of Clayton Christensen’s 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” the basic hypothesis of which is based on a theory of why businesses fail – “doing the right thing is the wrong thing.”

He coined the term “disruptive innovation” as a theory of change, and is meant to serve as both a chronicle of the past – why things happened – and as a model for the future – it will keep happening.

Innovation is now big business and is immutably attached to the word “disruptive.” Everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted, and if you are not disrupting you are finished.

Disrupters and Chief Innovation Officers everywhere will be gathering in London in September for Disruption Summit Europe’s “Disrupt or be Disrupted” conference.

Overlay this with the hype of digital transformation, Big Data Analytics, IoT, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, and it is little wonder that the perception of innovation has become utterly confounding and beyond the tolerance and means of many executives and business owners. Innovation is what the big technology companies do.

And as Jill Lepore expressed it in her definitive New Yorker article The Disruption Machine: “The rhetoric of disruption… is the language of panic, fear, asymmetry and disorder.”

When it comes down to it, it’s not a lack of innovation will that’s holding companies back, but the lack of a clear definition of what it actually is, how it works and, frankly, an aversion to what it has come to mean.

What exactly is innovation? Does it have to be disruptive to be of any value? Can a business innovate and create value without upsetting the company apple cart?

These are the questions we will address in part 2: Connecting the dots. We will look in detail at what companies are doing to create real value for customers in small but significant ways, and what Steve Jobs was really good at (and it wasn’t innovation).