If there’s a poster child for innovation, it’s most likely Thomas Edison. And if there’s a slogan scrawled across his poster, it’s probably his often-cited quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”, which is generally believed to relate to his work on the light bulb.
If you’re looking for a nicely packaged call for the power of perseverance, the rewards received for taking risks, or the benefits of having a go-get-’em can-do attitude you really can’t do much better than these words of wisdom from the man who gave the world the light bulb, the telegraph, the phonograph and motion pictures. It’s little wonder that innovation pundits love to trot out this oldie but goodie to inspire business leaders to lean further into the future, take chances, accommodate failure, and adopt an innovation mindset.
Granted Edison may never have actually said these words (although generally attributed to the inventor, they’ve never been confirmed as his own). For that matter — despite what many believe — he didn’t really invent the light bulb, arguably the object most often associated with his name and the icon that has become the de facto visual shorthand for “great idea”, but an invention that predates his work to improve upon it by roughly 50 years. So not to take anything away from the man (his accomplishments are many), but the 10,000 ways that won’t work story is a myth. An innovation creation myth of sorts, from which the permission to innovate springs forth.
But neither a questionable quote nor a faulty fact point to the real issue here. You see, as inspirational as it may seem, the 10,000 ways quote doesn’t actually provide a formula for successful innovation (sorry experts!). By any measure, no matter what the end result, 10,000 tries for every every successful completion make for a very poor track record. 10,000 to 1 is a ratio that favors quantity over quality, and suggests that the answer lies in generating more ideas when in reality it lies in generating good ideas. More and good are not mutually exclusive of course, but imagine the resources a 10,000 idea torrent would consume in your own business. And imagine how long it could take to generate, filter and then find the (arguably) few ideas even worth testing — even with an open innovation model in which the ideas may come fast and furious, the follow up effort of giving each idea the appropriate level of consideration is hardly a trivial task. Maybe businesses had the luxury of time back around the turn of the last century, but a dozen years into this century the frenzied pace of change means that time is of the essence. Innovators need fast. Innovators need efficient. Innovators need to find the one thing that works without having to wade through the 10,000 that won’t.
So 10,000 ways is a myth that might encourage an otherwise risk adverse leader to consider innovation — but it’s not one that serves today’s companies particularly well. Oh well…
That said, this type of myth may actually be the lesser of two evils. At a bare minimum, the 10,000 ways quote speaks to the importance of trying again and again, until you ultimately break through the roadblock that sits between you and your goal. It’s benign compared to the many innovation myths that have the exact opposite effect: The effect of holding businesses back — misconceptions about what innovation is, where it sits in an organization, how it gets done, and what it’s meant to accomplish. For the remainder of this post, I’d like to run down some of these myths — the innovation roadblocks — and bust them one by one.
6 Innovation Roadblocks Worth Busting Through
Myth #1: Innovation Is Just Ideas. Edisonian math aside, ideas are indeed important to innovation — what’s less clear is whether your innovation effort will require three, 300 or 30,000 ideas in order to get to a single solution. They key word there is solution. Innovation isn’t about generating ideas — it is about finding solutions. To create value, innovation must focus on solving a clearly defined challenge (for the company or, even better, for its customers) through applied creativity, a clear path to implementation, and an eye on accountability. If your company’s attempts at innovation amount to little more than shiny object chasing and trivial distractions from the matter at hand, it’s not because your ideas aren’t any good (they may be, they may not be). It’s because you haven’t kept your purpose in mind.
Myth #2: Innovation Can Be Handled as an Event. When companies confuse ideas with innovation, they tend to rely too heavily on event-based innovation exercises like brainstorming sessions or executive off-sites. Sure, they can be fun, the participants leave jazzed, and the organizers feel like they’ve amassed a handful of new ideas. But within a day or two, everyone goes back to business as usual. Plenty ventured, nothing gained. Why? Because real results require an always-on approach, sustainable processes, and platforms that empower your people (and in the social era, your customers and partners) to function as a well-tuned innovation capability. (More thinking on innovation capabilities here.)
Myth #3: R&D Owns Innovation. R&D absolutely plays a key role in product innovation, but even on that front it can be a mistake for the customer-facing functions in an organization (like marketing, sales and customer support, at the very least) to relinquish their own roles in making sure innovation is market-focused. But that’s not the only reason to debunk the notion of R&D-only innovation. Done right, innovation creates competitive advantage by differentiating your business across all core areas — from strategy, sales and customer service, to people, product and process (not to mention everything in between). I can’t think of many R&D organizations that would consider improving marketing efficacy by employing new social or mobile strategies, increasing company cash flow by adopting an untried approach to collections, or increasing knowledge sharing and productivity by fostering a more collaborative mindset to be among their top priorities. In fact, I can think of exactly zero R&D departments where this would be the case. So who really owns innovation? Everybody in the organization — at least as it pertains to delivering excellence in their own areas of subject matter expertise. But even better, beyond their own areas of subject matter expertise. Who’s to say an accounting clerk might not have a creative solution to a supply chain problem or branding challenge?
Myth #4: Innovation Is All iPhones. This is my shorthand for a common innovation objection — one that is closely related to the R&D argument just above, and hinges upon the notions that all innovation is radical or disruptive, and that all innovation aims to bring bold new products into the world. A couple of years back, I was doing some work with the innovation lead at a large consumer packaged goods company. In his role, he considered it his job to bring to life not only innovations that were new to the world or even new to his category, but also those that were simply new to his company. Good thinking. No matter what business you’re in, success requires you to manage a diverse portfolio of radical, substantial and incremental innovations that together strike the right balance between risks and rewards. In fact, it can often be the incremental, bread-and-butter changes that add up to lasting value. Remember — Edison didn’t invent the light bulb; he improved on it. Yet a century later, his is the name we most closely associate with our bright present.
Taking things one step further (Myth #4.5 perhaps), it might even be a mistake to think of new products as core to innovation (whether radical, substantial or incremental) at all. Today, businesses are more likely to have greater impact by focusing their efforts on creating new value through experiences (products + services + participation) or new business models, even where the product itself is essentially unchanged. For example, Zipcar didn’t change the car but they did introduce a new model by which urban dwellers can rent it; Netflix didn’t reinvent the DVD but they did change the model by which movie fans rent those. Business Model is the new iPhone — and your company or industry may not be aching for its next iPhone-caliber product innovation, but its basic business model might benefit from some shaking up (from the inside out).
Myth #5: Innovation Is Out of Reach. This one comes in a variety of forms but the two objections I hear most often boil down to my industry isn’t interesting enough and but I’m not a visionary. Neither holds water, in my opinion. One of Clayton Christensen’s most popular examples of disruption pits upstart, low-end rebar manufacturers against established, high-end sheet metal fabricators. I’m sure the steel industry is fascinating to some, but it’s hardly the stuff of next generation entrepreneurial day dreams. No business is so boring as to be insusceptible to change. Then we have the popular mythology that surrounds modern day Edisons like Steve Jobs — here was a man who foresaw the future not just once but several times over, remaking industries as diverse as home computing, entertainment and telecommunications. How can anyone compare, particularly if she’s a merely mortal accountant, attorney, corporate program manager, or marketing strategist? Here’s how… Innovation doesn’t require you to understand the future, so much as it requires you to understand your customers’ needs. I know Jobs was famous for disregarding customer needs in favor of creating new-to-the-world products that would ultimately create unrealized customer demand. Fantastic, but for most of us, defining more effective or more efficient ways to meeting known or clearly emerging customer demands — whether your customers are external to your business or internal to it, as they may be for those who work in finance, corporate communications, project management or other ostensibly meat-and-potatoes functions — lies at the heart of sustained, always-on innovation. In short, if you can conceive of a better way to do even just one small aspect of your job, and have just enough drive to do something about it, you are playing a role in business innovation. It may not be iTunes, iPhone or iPad sexy, but it is just as vital to the ongoing success of your company.
Myth #6: Innovation Is Optional. In today’s business environment, it’s difficult enough to sustain momentum, all-consuming just to maintain the status quo. Can we really afford to invent the future when there’s so much to get done just to keep pace with the present? The truth is, you can’t afford not to. For businesses — and business people — who believe that innovation is a nice to have more than a must have, a flavor of the month more than a nourishing staple of their diet, this myth is the most damaging of all. It’s the one that gives permission to get by with an occasional and ineffective check-the-box-for-innovation brainstorm, to abdicate responsibility to the guys in the goggles, to place the promise of innovation just out of reach. It’s the one that causes companies to fall behind, fall out of favor, and fall apart in the face of disruption. Disruption is only disruption when it happens to you from outside your organization and beyond your control. Otherwise, it’s transformation — and innovation is the engine for positive transformation. It is essential. Just as Peter Drucker (or Milan Kundera, or maybe both — yet another disputed quote) contends that innovation is one of only two basic functions of a business, former Proctor & Gamble chairman A.G. Lafley has said, “Innovation is the central job of every leader — business unit managers, functional leaders, and the CEO.” Now that’s a mandate worth repeating 10,000 or so times over.
Now, while I don’t suppose there are 9,994 additional roadblocks — or harmful myths — that throw businesses off track when it comes to innovation, I do expect there are more than the simple six I’ve laid out here.
So this is where you come in. What other myths, misconceptions or roadblocks do you see holding companies back when it comes to turning innovation into a competitive advantage?