Innovation is a buzzword for something that often fails

Innovation is not the answer to every problem. We like to brainstorm in beanbags, but we do not like the execution, writes Jasper van Kuijk

> This op-ed piece was published (in Dutch) in NRC Handelsblad, June 29, 2013
Nederlandse versie van dit artikel

Innovation is the new sustainability, the new planet-people-profit, the new 2.0 and how we will set ourselves apart from the Chinese. But above all innovation has become a buzzword that is used on a whim by policy makers and to win a tender or land a grant proposal. It has become an incantation. Innovation is not a panacea. Innovation is tough, dangerous and therefore very appealing.

The Dutch chamber of representatives was at one point very critical about the Iederwijs schools, where children themselves choose what and when they learn. The so-called Steve Jobs schools that the chamber is now so lyrical about, have the same didactic principles, but now it is with an iPad, so it is innovative, so it is good.

After the much-criticized metamorphosis of the eight o ‘clock news its editor in chief Marcel Gelauff said: “Sometimes you have to innovate for the sake of innovation.” Whether presenting the news while standing is an improvement I’ll leave for you to judge, but I think that Gelauff’s opinion on innovation is off target. The goal of innovation is improvement. The point is: that goal is often not met. Actually, it is very often not met.

The word innovation has gained an overly positive connotation. As someone who works in a university department that engages itself with product innovation I should maybe rejoice. However, I do see danger on the horizon. That innovation is considered too easy. That innovation is becoming the answer to every problem and that everybody should always do it. If we keep doing this, in a few years nobody will want to innovate because we will be fed up with it.

To innovate is to do something new, to go beyond the status quo. It seldomly happens that a person or organization does something which has never been done before anywhere in the world. Innovation is not the same as invention. Innovation can be defined as the development of new combinations. Introducing an existing product in a new market. That Dutch telecom provider XS4all provided full-service at-home installation service with its ADSL subscription was an innovation, while for home heating systems this had already been the standard for many years.

Innovation has two fundamental properties that drive every manager crazy

So whether a project is innovative also depends on your perspective. SNCF, the French railways, know what requirements to set for a high-speed train and their supplier Alstom pretty much knows what to expect when developing something like that, because together they developed the TGV. For them the production of a new high-speed train is not nearly as big an innovation as it is for a national railway organisation that orders such a train from a supplier that never made one before.

Innovation has two fundamental properties that can drive every manager crazy: an uncertain outcome and an uncertain process. First the outcome. Estimations of success rates of innovation projects vary from 50 per cent to 1 per cent. So a successful innovation ‘requires’ tens of failures. And a 50 per cent chance of success may sound optimistic, but try telling your boss that the project that he is investing 10 million in has a 50 per cent chance of success.

That’s why the word ‘success’ is often added to innovation. Successful innovations, that is what we want. But how to select or start those projects that will result in successful innovations? When Alpe d’HuZes, a charity that raises money for cancer research, was criticized for its slow rate of investing donations in medical research the organization responded by saying: “Innovation and patient interest are our primary concerns. We get all kinds of applications where one could wonder what the end result will be and how patients will benefit.” This quote shows the difficult position of those who have to invest in innovation. Because innovation is about doing things differently it is hard to assess whether something has a chance of succeeding and what the benefits will be.

Chances are that radically new ideas will at first be rejected and their inventors branded idiots. Miroslaw Graf, the Polish inventor of ski jumping with skis in a V-shape, was initially ridiculed by his peers. Skiers that applied his technique would get penalty points from the jury. Now almost every ski-jumper uses this once-ridiculed technique. The thing is: no one remembers the other idiots who also tried crazy postures and failed.

Halfway through the nineties Douwe Egberts started an innovation project called Decathlon that featured a large amount of product innovation projects. One, just one, of those projects turned out to be the Senseo. So if you and your organization are planning to create ‘the next Senseo’, be sure to have the time and budget for all those other projects that should be allowed to fail (or that at least will not be the next Senseo). It is no coincidence that the motto of my colleague and professor of innovation Jan Buijs reads: „Fail fast and fail often.”

And then for the uncertainties of the process. In an innovation project you can discern four types of activities (which are, by way, very unlikely to be conducted chronologically): First of all you have to conceive in what area you want to innovate. The opportunity: a problem or unexploited domain. Next, to exploit the opportunity you have to think of a fitting solution or improvement (the idea or concept). And then you have to refine and implement that concept. In the words of interaction guru Bill Buxton: „Making the right product and making the product right.” And finally you have to introduce the innovation on the market in the right way or implement it in your organization. During this whole process you make a thousand choices in unfamiliar territory.

You do not know what you do not know; in the beginning it is not clear which knowledge and skills you lack.

And if you move into unfamiliar territory, as an organization you will have to acquire new knowledge and learn new methods. But often you do not know what you do not know; in the beginning it is not clear what knowledge and skills you lack. That is what you find out along the way. You also need to have the freedom to make mistakes. Explore alternatives, take a step back if you took a wrong turn. That is inherent to innovation: because you are moving into unfamiliar territory it becomes harder to assess what needs to be done, how long this will take and what it will cost. The Senseo entered the market in 2002, after a development time of about seven years. The last thing you want to do is put a standard planning and budget on innovative projects.

Innovation should go hand in hand, and be alternated with, optimization. During my PhD research I investigated how electronic consumer products companies deal with usability. To the question ‘What is bad for usability’ a number of experienced product development professionals answered: innovation. User interfaces are often optimized over generations. Change your user interface radically and you are once again at the bottom of the development curve. If you develop a user interface from scratch every time, you are innovating but not improving, was the reasoning of these product developers. Were they opposed to innovation? No. Sometimes you get to a point where you have to innovate, because a product or user interface concept has been stretched to the maximum of its possibilities and there are no longer any gains in incremental change. But they also said: if you innovate radically, be sure to come prepared, because it will cost time and money. If you innovate, do not be naïve and do it well.

If your innovation hits the mark, you are – for a while – ahead of your competitors.

If innovation is such a hazardous enterprise, why do it? Because the same rules apply to innovation as to investing: big risks are linked to big potential rewards. If your innovation hits the mark, you are – for a while – ahead of your competitors. Or your organization can work more efficiently. Organizations can focus on increased efficiency, but that only improves profits, not your product portfolio, knowledge, market share or well-being of your staff. ‘You can’t shrink your way to greatness’ (Tom Peters). In order to grow you have to innovate. And we love to innovate. Doing new stuff, it energizes us. Oh my, how we find it inspiring to innovate. Well, at least the part of innovation that allows us to brainstorm while lying in bean bags. Being creative, that we like. But the execution, the muddling, the having to rework something completely, the realizing your on a dead-end street, the nit-picking to get the details right. That we like a lot less.

All the attention for innovation as a phenomenon is praiseworthy. Innovation can bring great rewards. But not if we engage in it naively. Innovation is not easy, more often tough than it is fun and it will not set us apart from the Chinese. Because the Chinese also innovate. And increasingly better and increasingly quicker. The challenge is not to always be innovative. The challenge is to always be better. Sometimes that means not innovating. And it always means that if you innovate, that you know what you are doing even though you do not know what you are going to do.