Innovation is bounded

Even Mr Potato Head can only change so much - Photo by Elyce FelizIn a discussion today about innovation many wise words were said, but one thing in particular stuck with me: that an organisation’s innovation is almost always limited to being a particular kind of innovation.

On the one hand innovation is about change. On the other, you need a reliable — and therefore pretty fixed — mechanism to ensure that change happens. That means you can only successfully innovate in a pre-defined way.

Innovation happens at many levels. Take the low level. A software team might have successfully introduced retrospectives, changing every fortnight the way they work, and they can do this even if the rest of the organisation is paralysed in its ways.

Take the middle level. A food company may have great market researchers constantly able to spot new opportunities and introduce exciting new brands… but they’re still a company producing different packages of food.

And take the high level: Google has long had a particular way of generating new ideas, which is about developers having independence to work on what they feel is worthwhile. But that makes it difficult when the CEO wants to take a directive approach to shift the focus of the entire company — he ends up having to issue ultimatums like “This is the path we’re headed down […] If you don’t get that, then you should probably work somewhere else.”

I don’t think this is quite “Innovator’s dilemma” stuff. That’s more about the difficulty of innovating. This is saying that continual innovation can only happen successfully in a particular way for a particular company, which means that there will always be limits and bounds on how it innovates, and certain kinds of innovation will always be denied it — or at least there will be without changing the innovation mechanism.

Of course, there may be rare exceptions. I’m reminded that 3M has an explicit remit for 30% of its revenue to come from products introduced within the last five years. Nevertheless, for the majority of those who do innovate successfully, it’s innovation within limits of the process.