Getting beyond novelty

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By Christopher Wasden

Ours is an age of innovation—or so it seems. New technologies that transform the way we live, work, and play appear with an amazing frequency that has come to seem almost routine. With innovation running rampant, one might assume that most companies get it; they know how to innovate. But do they? Research shows that over two-thirds of all business-related innovation initiatives fail. Yet, some companies clearly are more successful at innovation than others. Why? Does innovation just happen, or is there more to it than that? Strategy and innovation consultant Chris Wasden argues that true innovation requires discipline. And if you think innovation derives from success, you’d better think again. As Wasden sees it, failure is the genesis of innovation and growth.

What is innovation? What drives it? What sustains it? These are critical questions for any company hoping to succeed in a global economy. Yet, as important as it is, true innovation is widely misunderstood. To some, innovation is creativity. In their minds, if something is new, it’s innovative. Others confuse novelty with innovation. To them, if something is unusual or different, it’s innovative. Neither view is correct. In fact, both are patently wrong because they are missing an essential ingredient. And companies adopting either view are doomed to failure—and an expensive failure at that.

What is that essential ingredient? In a word, it’s value. Simply put, that which is creative and new becomes innovative only when it creates value—that is, when people are willing to pay for it. Otherwise, from a business perspective, it is simply novel, and ultimately useless. Or, to put it another way, innovation that is never commercialized is worthless.

Image: Example of innovatoin
That which is creative and new becomes innovative only when it creates value—
that is, when people are willing to pay for it.

Defining innovation, however, is just the first step. Harnessing innovation and making it work for you requires an understanding of what drives it and what sustains it. In general, people don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Today, I’m going to be innovative.” Rather, the innovator needs something to which to react—something I’ll call a tension. Tensions are meaningful structural gaps resulting from changes in rules, resources, roles, relationships, or goals that are important but difficult to close. In other words, innovators react to what they perceive as a meaningful difference between things as they are and things as they ought to be or could be. So, for example, several years ago, mobile phones could do one thing: make calls. Innovators saw the possibility of such devices providing much more, such as Internet connectivity, music and photo storage, and numerous applications that simply make life easier, from locating a good restaurant to navigating the best route to your destination. The result? An innovation: smart phones that do all of that and more.

Whether responding to external problems or to those embedded within the organization, innovation cannot occur without tension. Neither can it emerge in the absence of failure and the pain that failure engenders. In fact, it is that pain which leads to the tensions that encourage innovation and growth, but failure is the first step. That’s why innovative organizations transform frequent failures into successes. The trick is to fail fast and frequently so that sustainable solutions come quickly to the fore.

As significant as they are to the process, value, failure, pain, and tension themselves cannot produce innovation. The binder in this dish is discipline—and, more specifically, market discipline. And it is there that we begin.