My colleague Chris Trimble and I have polled hundreds of managers, asking them to define innovation. Usually, managers equate innovation with creativity. But innovation is not creativity. Creativity is about coming up with the big idea. Innovation is about executing the idea — converting the idea into a successful business.
We like to think of an organization's capacity for innovation as creativity multiplied by execution. We use "multiplication" rather than "sum" because, if either creativity or execution has a score of zero, then the capacity for innovation is zero.
Chris and I have devoted the last ten years studying one question: What are the best practices for executing an innovation initiative? Our book, The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, is the result of that effort.
Here's why we worked on execution, as opposed to creativity: We surveyed thousands of executives in Fortune 500 companies to rate their companies' innovation skills on a scale of one to 10, one being poor and 10 world class. Survey participants overwhelmingly believe that their companies are better at generating ideas (average score of six) than they are at commercializing them (average score of one).
So which is more effective — moving your (already good) creativity score from six to eight or lifting your (very poor) execution score from one to three? Here's the math using our shorthand, creativity times execution:
Capacity to innovate = 6 x 1 = 6
Capacity to innovate, increasing creativity score = 8 x 1 = 8
Capacity to innovate, increasing execution score = 6 x 3 = 18
It's no contest. Companies tend to focus far more attention on improving the front end of the innovation process, the creativity. But the real leverage is in the back end.
Ideas will only get you so far. Consider companies that struggled even after a competitor entered the market and made the great idea transparent to all. Did Xerox stumble because nobody there noticed that Canon had introduced personal copiers? Did Kodak fall behind because they were blind to the rise of digital photography? Did Sears suffer a decline because they had no awareness of Wal-Mart's new every-day-low-price discount retailing format? In every case, the ideas were there. It was the follow-through that was lacking. In fact, we have found that innovation initiatives face their stiffest resistance after they show hints of success, begin to consume significant resources, and clash with the existing organization at multiple levels — that is, long after the idea generation stage.
Managers seem to be enamored with the Big Idea Hunt for three reasons. First, coming up with an idea does not create tension with the core business. Second, ideation is sexy, while execution is long, drawn out, and boring. Third, companies think they are good at execution. But generally they're good at execution in their core businesses; the capabilities making that possible are poisonous for innovation.
Thomas Edison, the greatest innovator of all time, put it well: "Innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." Reflect on how much time your organization spends on inspiration versus perspiration. What are the barriers to execution? How are you attempting to overcome them?
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