Innovation - That Strange Mythical Animal
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta
It was an interesting email that I got from Google Alerts. I have an alert setup for “innovation” as a keyword. The interesting thing is that I get the most interesting and curious hits on that keyword. As it so happens, on the same email, I got referred to a Businessweek article on innovation and another article on how Nortel could not save itself from bankruptcy despite investing heavily in innovation.
Innovation is a tough thing. What exactly is it? Something to do with new things? OK, lets run with it for now. But everybody and his dog wants to be known as innovative. Nothing wrong with it at all. But just like every buzz word, it needs to be treated carefully. People can get into all this innovation business too much and then forget about the basics of business. The two articles given above are interesting examples of this phenomena.
My son has been on World of Warcraft for the past 4 years now and has a good little business running there. So I have a fair idea of what is happening there. He has also managed to rope in my little princess as a magic maid, so that promises to be a good story one day. Anyway, I do appreciate the points made in the article about how WoW has managed to incorporate basic principles of innovation into its game so that it is doing brilliantly. I quote some of the main principles that the authors quote as lessons from the game:
- Reduce barriers to entry and to early advancement
- Provide clear and rich metrics to assess performance
- Keep raising the bar
- Don't neglect intrinsic motivations
- Provide opportunities to develop tacit knowledge, but do not neglect broader knowledge exchange
- Create opportunities for teams to self-organize around challenging performance targets
- Encourage frequent and rigorous performance feedback
- Create an environment that rewards new dispositions
But I have a bit of an issue here, and that is that the principles seems to be driven from the story and then generalised. To put it in another way, if I had to pick up these principles and plonk it into any other business, i can, very easily, but does that mean that my old business has suddenly become innovative? Or that innovation starts gushing from each pore? No, obviously not. None of these principles are wrong at all. But at end of the day, people have to keep a a laser eye out on the main business of selling profitably.
Which brings us to the second example, that of Nortel. Nortel did everything that these principles said should be done. It turned its attention to new products, it brought in imaginative thinkers, changed its investment policy, new products were gushing out, strategy was changed, people were let go and new people hired, and so on and so forth. But does this mean that they did wrong? No, just that their basic idea of migrating the firm into a new world of web 2.0 was simply not good enough. It just bombed. As a matter of fact, you could point towards its debt load but then again, they already had $2.6 billion in cash. That again was not enough to save it from going under provided its products were good enough to provide a good cashflow. Which it didn't.
Depending upon which product category you refer to, innovative products have a very high failure rate, ranging from 40% to 90% (as reported in the HBR – June 2006 edition). When you are talking about such a high failure rate, to maintain innovative capability is paramount. You have to dust yourself off and keep on working. In a recent research paper where innovation was studied with respect to Sun, what is normally held to be an innovative company. After one of their products bombed, the researchers coin what is called as Innovation Trauma. This manifests itself by disillusionment, cynicism and contagious demotivation.
So what do you do to improve matters? The researchers suggest that individuals who were championing and pushing innovative products should be given time to disengage from their previous work. Second, they need to conduct post-mortems on the failure to find out why that happened and if they can learn from the results. Third, this postmortem is best if its done collaboratively by the original team or a team of some sort, an innovation anonymous, if you will. Fourth, seed the failure aspects into a new project so that the old failure is uplifted by the excitement of the new project while the new project is calibrated downwards by the caution of the old failed project. Expectations management.
So what do you do? Here’s something that we are trying to do. The British Political system is pushing heavily on the idea that Britain has to become an innovative idea. Pretty good stuff, but how do you deal with innovation? I have recently been invited to join a group on Innovation which will assist in coming up with strategies to improve the UK innovation footprint. It is not easy. Actually, anybody can come up with a good idea. Ideas are dime a dozen, but to get from the idea stage to a company which is stand alone, has some cash in the bank, has a good order book with some good client companies, ah!, now that’s the holy grail.
So what we are hoping to do is to provide that bit of a helping hand from the corporate and government sides. If a small firm does have a good idea, we will get together and try to do two things, (1) try to assist in framing the new idea as something that is innovative in terms of resolving a business problem and (2) try to assist by championing it inside our firms. Obviously no money and all that stuff, but in my experience, innovators fall in love with the idea rather than how it will resolve the problem.
They forget that we are in business to sell (anything, potatoes, widgets, credit cards, etc.) to somebody who can pay for it. Do not want to go into detail, but the idea has to be something that somebody is willing to push his hands into his back pocket and put out money. So despite having great ideas, if you forget the basic elements of selling and making products that will sell, all those innovative ideas will be useless.
Innovation - That Strange Mythical Animal
- » Published on February 07, 2009
- » Type: Opinion
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- » This is part of a regular feature, With a Grain of Salt.
Author: Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta
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