Pick out any company’s mission, vision, and value statement, and you are very likely to find a call to innovate. Companies understand they must produce more high-quality widgets, ideally at a lower cost. Adherence to the status quo will only get in the way of this pursuit: Innovation is the name of the game.
Consider a company that makes cake, and the current version of the cake isn’t selling as well as it used to sell. The leadership calls a big meeting and outlines the vision for a better tasting cake, and employees are asked to innovate. People at all levels of the company go out and apply their knowledge, skills, and experience to the problem.
A lot of people will focus on the icing or various cosmetic changes. Some people use the same ingredients but change the quantities or combination a little here or there; even fewer people mix a new element into their cake or remove existing elements. Almost everyone probably ends up submitting a cake that at least bears a resemblance to the old cake. And across all submissions, one thing remains true: The greater departure from the company’s classic cake, the riskier their innovation feels, and is.
Let’s examine the cakes that have the same thing inside but were shaped differently or now have fresh icing. They aren’t new. These cakes don’t innovate, they just dress the same core product up differently, yet the company has already determined that customers don’t like how the cake tastes.
Now consider the proposals that changed how the original ingredients were mixed or tinkered a bit by adding or subtracting an ingredient or two: These might actually be different, and there might be a true easy win that can quickly change the fortunes of the company. There probably isn’t a big startup cost, but there’s a bit of investment in retraining employees to bake this cake using a new set of instructions.
Cakes like this are only a little risky for leaders, and depending on the level of change required for the company, one of these might be just what the company needed.
And then there’s the totally re-imagined cake. Maybe someone brings in a cookie platter because they have some knowledge that a cookie platter would open a brand-new market segment. But a significant change like this requires substantial risk acceptance by leaders, and it also probably requires a higher level of expertise and trust at multiple levels of the organization.
Now, here’s where leaders can get into trouble. The cakes with new shapes and icing might require the least change management and create a temporary sales bump. Therefore, they are probably the likeliest to be approved. Even if a leader is experienced enough to trial one of the cakes with a new ingredient, there’s a natural tendency to revert to things that are known, which is the old recipe. With variables like short production timelines, new training costs, and marketing changes, the opportunity for true innovation is diminished.
Companies accept icing innovations quite often, mistaking them for what they are not: Recipes that will fundamentally improve company operations. Companies also table or refuse true innovation just as often, because they fail to see them for what they are: A brighter representation of the mission, vision, and values of the company’s future. Over time, the brightest innovators often find themselves on the wrong end of this spectrum and may determine that they should seek a new job that will use their innovative skills. If they stay, they’ll likely stop tinkering with the recipe because they’ve been trained that it won’t make a difference.
The reality is that leadership often finds itself unable to conduct (or even start) the change management required to see such an innovation through. Given a new recipe, proof of concept, and even customer testimonials of the new cake’s success, the company hasn’t strategically prepared itself to do anything more than change the icing.
When this happens, the innovators probably know that their ideas are valid, but they’re also smart enough to know that they’ve been put on a shelf (at best). Leadership might try to employ the innovation’s promise by using its name but whittling its novelty down so that, by the end of the process, what once was game-changing now more closely resembles the old cake with new icing. But people will know the difference.
So, what has leadership accomplished by asking for innovation? Well, customers and employees could realize they’ve been misled, and they’ll trust the company less. The company has effectively lowered its bar for future success by inadvertently rewarding those who are most risk-averse. They have likely disenfranchised their best and brightest and could likely fall behind the competition. Their innovation is nothing but a bit of new icing that will be stale by the time tomorrow’s shops open.
Is it better to have not asked for innovation at all?
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