Bursting the Business Innovation Myth

or 3 Common Misconceptions about Business Innovation 

It is January 2nd 2006 when I land at Helsinki airport. My host family is waiting for me, at least as tired as I after celebrating New Year’s Eve. This is my first time in Finland and I find myself being puzzled that it is not snowing and people actually have ice cream in the Shopping center. In fact, Finland has one of the highest ice cream consumptions per capita in the world, as I learned later on. This appears to be a leading sign for my visit. 


2 weeks later I am proudly presented a Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. And my heart went boom-boom. It felt like the future had arrived. It turns out it wasn’t. Just an year later Apple announced the first iPhone which made price of the Nokia tablets drop to less than 150USD before going to mass market. If you believe now that I will bring up the thing about Nokia failing to innovate one more time, I am not. Indeed, I believe they did everything right. They had identified changing customer behavior and used state-of-the-art technology to develop a new type of device meeting those needs. It was fast, functional, and even sexy. Here’s what it looked like: 

 

This is to the MythBusters fans!

During my personal digitalization history I have always been faithful to the brand. I don’t want to advocate the company with this post. However, it is an example well known and I want to use it to illustrate 3 common misperceptions about business innovation that constantly get in the way of productive innovation projects. 

Misconception #1: Innovation is for rebels only. 

Somehow, many of us have ended to believe that innovation is the exclusive domain of the rebels, of the creative, of those who disregard rules and hierarchies. An unverbalized consequence of this erroneous notion is that the antidotes of the rebels, the big companies that happen to have a lot of those, cannot be innovative per definition. In accordance to the facts however, most innovative companies are big and older than 10 yearsResearch shows also that constraints, like policies and procedures, actually drive creativity. N770 was also developed in a company like this, a place with meetings, middle management reports, a number of international offices and colleagues who needed to be involved, informed, and sometimes even circumvented. Finns are also not known to be rebellious, and in my personal opinion they are pretty structured and disposed to authority. What Finns really are like you can find out yourself. The point is, that neither the personal computer, nor the iPod or N770 have been developed by startups. So, innovation is indeed a possible and even expectable result of a structured approach and team collaboration with no regard of the size of the company. It is the art of collaboration that matters. 

Misconception #2: Innovation is a an event somewhere in the future. 

I speak with a number of aspiring entrepreneurs every week. Many of them have great ideas, some even bring along brave visions. But very few of them succeed in blazing the trail towards them. And guess what, innovation is not about the future. Innovation is about today, and tomorrow. It is a cumulative process that builds bridges to a better world, it is not an end in itself. The most powerful innovations are created while solving current problems. N770 probably earned a drawback on this point since it provided an easy way to browse the web while on your way, but the web was not ready yet. Even until 2015 most websites were not mobile-friendly. And 10 years earlier in 2005, I was only able to check my emails with the device, not really use it for work or office programs. Even finding and reading articles on the web was challenging. If there is a common denominator of all successful innovations out there, this is the ability to provide a current solution to a current problem today, as a way to cross the gap to any vision for the future. 

Misconception #3: There’s a secret recipe for innovation. 

If there is a recipe for anything at all, then it is the one for catching people’s attention with alleged shortcuts to achieving stuff without effort. Even if not secret, it is working: for weight reduction, for career development, and for business innovation. It raises publicity, sells books, and gets you invitations for well-respected panel discussions. Frameworks come and go every other year, as a proof for their continuous ineffectiveness. Success stories from the internet Olympus make it all look fast, easy, straight-forward. But neither Lean Startup, nor Design Thinking, will help an innovation project sustain in a corporate environment. Because it is not just the process, or the tools, but also the timing, the team, the development edge, the commitment, the funding, the culture, the leadership, the motivation and everything else, too. In fact, there’s a framework for having it all on one plate, too — the Theory U by Otto Scharmer

To conclude, innovation is not a thing for rebels only. It can be the outcome of a structured and collaborative process, taking place in a corporate environment. But the process is not a secret recipe that every company can take out of the box. It needs to be developed individually taking into account all internal and external factors that are relevant to the opportunity. Methods for this have been developed not just in the past years, but since the beginning of the industrialization. The faster the pace of change the less you can count on myths. So go burst them all by focsuing on doing the right things instead on doing them right.