We’ve had the same conversation about innovation countless times over the past few years.
“We want to be innovative!” says the executive or manager in front of us. And every time, we ask the same question.
When we’re not met with a blank stare, which occurs more than you might think, the person often answers by explaining that their company needs to find “new ways of doing things,” adding that their organization needs to “shake things up.” We listen, and nod politely, and then try to get them to actually answer the question, because what they just told us is not an answer at all. In fact, if anyone thinks that it’s a good idea to engage in innovation just for the sake of trying out the latest buzzword-associated conference topic or to check a box with something a vendor dangled in front of them, they probably aren’t being very innovative, and they almost certainly don’t understand the need for addressing real-world problems with new solutions, which is what innovation really needs to be about on the business side of healthcare.
That may sound like heresy, especially coming from people who help life science and healthcare companies carry out innovation projects. But it’s the cold, hard truth. And if you want to be successful at delivering practical innovation inside your company, you should start by figuring out why there is a need for innovation in the first place, as it applies to any given situation inside your brand, function, or company.
If that surprises you, take a moment to think about it. The very essence of innovation is that it is a NEW and DIFFERENT way of doing things. In other words, innovation represents a CHANGE from the way things are done today. That all sounds great, until you remember:
- People and organizations hate change and go to great lengths to resist it.
- That resistance will slow things down, harming productivity and profits.
- It takes a lot of time, energy, and resources to overcome that resistance, and that means it costs a lot of money.
- Your company is in business to make money. In fact, for those engaged in innovation that’s focused on business processes such as customer engagement, including marketing and selling, the only good reason anyone wants you to “be innovative” is to help the company make more money.
So, you’d better have a really good reason for wanting to be innovative.
We call out this ugly truth because whatever big innovation you’re going to try to design, build, and introduce will have to be big enough to overcome all the inertia and resistance that this change creates. It’s going to have to be an idea so good that it beats out whatever is currently being done. People and processes already exist to make the company money, so if you think that your big idea is just going to add profits without costing the company anything, you might be in for a big surprise.
It’s been fashionable to talk about being “disruptive” in recent years, but those who understand disruptive solutions also realize that these are almost always introduced by a new market entrant. If you’re reading this, there’s a really good chance that’s not you, and you don’t work in a new market entrant. Instead, you work inside a company that values process and predictability, so your approach might need to be a bit different than the wunderkinds in Silicon Valley. What works for them does so because they’re playing a different game. They should play that game! We need them to play that game! But you? Maybe not so much.
In our experience, the people who are likely to be successful in their desire to introduce innovation (i.e., change) inside their company are those who can clearly articulate:
- What specific problem are we trying to solve, either for our customers or for our company?
- Why aren’t the current ways of addressing that problem adequate?
These are the first two questions to ask at the start of any innovation project because they force the would-be innovator into addressing a real problem. They aren’t “doing” innovation (i.e., creating change) just for the sake of doing it, which in most established companies is about as useful as running around in a circle, and potentially as disruptive as doing so while holding a live skunk. Instead, successful innovators working inside existing, established companies are focused on figuring out a way to add value by having their new ideas (yes, you do get to have those!) receive a fair test and not get squelched while they’re still just a gleam in someone’s slide presentation software.
There will be, of course, many who argue that companies should constantly seek new ways of doing things simply because that’s somehow going to make them “smarter” and keep them “ahead of the pack.” We agree, when those pursuits are carried out with the purpose of solving problems or when the scope of the pursuit is limited to gaining a basic understanding of new technologies. But those who advocate pursuing new innovation projects simply for the sake of saying they did so are spouting pure drivel, generally born out of having never run a real business or brand with a real P&L, or out of a desire to make a nice living by helping to build bridges to nowhere. In reality, you need to understand the focus of your proposed innovation (i.e., the problem you’re trying to solve) before you can get anything useful done.
If you take nothing else away from this article, please remember:
- Innovation is sometimes necessary and when that’s the case, companies need people who can carry out innovation projects successfully and efficiently. But the first step of demonstrating that competency as an innovator is knowing whether or not innovation is necessary in a given situation and what you’re trying to accomplish through it.
- Innovation means change, and change is costly to an organization. Most organizations are better off minimizing needless change—even if that means passing up an opportunity to innovate, in some situations. Focusing on carrying out current processes more effectively and efficiently can sometimes be more helpful and profitable than introducing innovation.
- When innovation is necessary, it’s because current ways of doing things are not adequate or cannot be adapted in a way that allows the company to maintain or improve its current competitive position.
Wise managers will approve “innovation projects” only after those who come to them asking for money, time, or other resources can clearly articulate the need for innovation and describe the ways the innovation accomplishes things that can’t be done today using more established processes and tools. If you can’t do that, you’re unlikely to ever become a wise manager yourself.
Next up in the series: Why are YOU the best person to carry out this innovation project?