Innovation in business has become such a ubiquitous buzzword that it’s hard to talk about it without resorting to cliche. Below are certain myths about innovation:
Innovation Myth 1: Failure Generates Success
It’s commonly said in business circles that the only way to generate successful innovation is by repeatedly trying and failing, until you stumble upon a good solution. While this is true in a phenomenological sense, it doesn’t work as a business strategy. Too many companies take this idea to mean that they should spread their resources thinly across a wide variety of potential ideas, giving equally scant attention to each. This is sure to generate tons half-baked ideas and plenty of coveted failure, but very little innovation. Just because failure is positively correlated with innovation, doesn’t mean that it’s the cause of it.
The hard fact is that companies that succeed invest massive resources into each of their products, hopeful and confident that each of them will succeed. If you hedge your bets by only investing minimal resources, you are only hurting your chances for success and wasting your time. Failure is a hard, necessary step on the road to innovation. If you try to take the sting out of it in this way, you are only condemning yourself to more of it. Bold ideas require a leap of faith to succeed, and that has to carry real risk.
Innovation Myth 2: Innovation Can Be Generated in a Linear Fashion
To understand this mistake, imagine the following scenario: an alien comes down to earth and observes that human beings enjoy sticking little pieces of plastic into their ears and piping loud noises into their skulls. Wanting to get in the good graces of humanity, the alien goes back to his ship and manufactures what it considers to be a similar product. It looks similar to the devices it sees and plays sounds of a similar frequency to what he’s heard. When he presents it to the first human he sees he’s shocked to witness his new friend recoiling from the object and covering his ears. Startled, the alien shoots him with his laser, climbs back into his ship and flies back to the Andromeda system.
This is a more dramatic version of what happens when companies try to generate innovation in a linear, imitative fashion. Seeing Apple’s success, countless companies have made abortive attempts to create similar mp3 players, which have the look and feel of an iPod, but lack the characteristic attention to detail, dovetailed software support, and sheer engineering quality of the original. Companies do the same thing when they try to emulate a successful innovation culture within an organization. They focus on the externalities without taking into account the core ideas that generated them. The externalities of innovation are just window dressing for the long internal process in which they are mere side effects.
The tricky thing about innovation is that it is, by definition, inimitable. The only way you can make it happen in your organization is by taking a hard look at your own strengths and weaknesses and trying to find ways to generate the non-linear, serendipitous moments that lead to great ideas. Throwing a new coat of paint on the office, cribbing someone else’s employee handbook or advertising content may help superficially, but should not be thought of as a solution to the innovation problem. Innovation has to come from within.
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