Why innovation is so hard

January 16, 2013: 1:02 PM ET

Most business leaders don't understand what makes innovation so different from everything else they do at work -- and they haven't adjusted their behavior to accommodate these differences.130116054849-innovation-bright-idea-gallery-horizontal

By Jeff DeGraff

(TheMIX) -- Chances are, innovation doesn't work where you work -- or only works some of the time, mostly in spite of your organization's system and processes. Why? Because you don't understand what makes the innovation game so different from everything else you do at work -- and you haven't adjusted your playbook to accommodate these differences.

The good news is you're not alone. Too many of the best leaders still get a lot wrong when it comes to innovation. Getting on the path to mastery requires a deep understanding of what we don't understand. Here are five truths about innovation that most of us get wrong -- and how to get it right:

Data won't get you far

Big data is the new big thing. Collecting and interpreting information to predict future possibilities is useful in many ways -- hurricane warnings, consumer confidence ratings, and disease outbreak forecasts come to mind. Given access to abundant computation power and a functional algorithm or two, we can simulate how the components of an event will interact and possibly even predict such an event's timing.

But what about cases where the causes of events are not well understood and there is a lot of variability? Will consumers in Russia buy this new soft drink? Will this new molecule really cure the dreaded disease? Will this new security system keep us safe from hostile forces? The greater the magnitude and volatility of the forces that drive the future, the less likely you are to get it right.

You may assume that the future will function much like today. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronaut Dave calls Earth from Jupiter -- from a phone booth. Even the brilliant Arthur C. Clarke missed a few things.

Stop collecting excessive data. It stops you from running meaningful experiments. Better to make a little, sell a little, and learn a lot.

Failure is inevitable

There are two kinds of parents at the playground – the "don't do that" kind, and the "hurt, didn't it?" kind. Which approach helps the kid learn faster? Ouch! Indeed, all learning is developmental. Don't believe it? Take out a piece of paper and draw a picture of your dog. Your friends and family will be able to tell you at what age you stopped learning to draw. Speak a foreign language or play an instrument and you get the point. No matter your age or professional status, if you haven't done it before, you will inevitably fail before you succeed.

So how do you fail without becoming a failure? Learn from venture capitalists and treasure hunters: hedge your bets. Diversify your projects. Take multiple shots at a single goal. Fall in love with the problem, not your solution. Inevitably, it won't be quite right, at least right now. Fail early, often, and out of sight.

Innovation happens from the outside in

The primary function an organization's rhythm is to maintain equilibrium. You march to the beat of efficiency and quality. Variation is the enemy. The problem is that innovation is produced through variation. And each time you launch anything "abnormal," the organizational antibodies attack it.

Revolutions start from the outside in. It's the dissatisfied fringe that shakes things up, because for them the risk of doing something radically new and the reward of keeping the status quo is reversed. Think about the insolvent Apple (AAPL) of the late 1990s, Gandhi and his march to the sea, or Bob Dylan – "When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose."

Forget the middle of the organization, where middle managers patrol the borders. Do what great doctors and researchers do. Take on the difficult case and the lost cause. The middle will avoid these like the plague because there is no antidote. This will give you some much-needed operating room. Do your best to correct the problem or cure the disease and learn what works and what doesn't. Quickly adapt winning strategies, develop methods based on your conclusions, and apply those lessons everywhere. Soon, miracles become replicable and scalable.

Constructive conflict trumps consensus

Spend an afternoon at a world-class biotech lab or drop in on a faculty meeting at a top-flight university, and you can almost feel the intellectual pushing and shoving. At its worst, it feels like politicians in Washington trying to destroy each other just to get the upper hand. At its best, it feels like Michelangelo and the golden guild of Florentine craftsman constructing a masterpiece out of a flawed slab of marble. The positive tension molds the nascent creation like taffy until it morphs into something sublime. Too many leaders focus on building consensus first. But that should come last.

So what if you don't live in Cambridge or Tel Aviv or frequent artists colonies? Chances are you can enlist some folks who think differently than you do. Of course they're annoying because they don't want to do things the way you do them -- the right way. But you can't have astounding synthesis, hybrid solutions, or develop a gee-whiz science fair winning gizmo without some competition. If you don't have a loyal opposition, it might be time to create one.

Innovation goes in cycles

If you've ever trekked up a winding mountain path, you know that the vistas get more splendid as you climb higher. With each step, more and more is revealed. You get smarter as you go along and begin to see what you could not possibly have noticed from the ground. The tragic mistake of the novice climber is in believing that you can see over the next summit. Meanwhile, a sheer precipice may quickly put an end to even the best laid plans.

History is filled with stories of those who chose to believe in their strategy even when their senses and experience told them otherwise. The only real difference between the Donner Party and Lewis and Clark is that, at some point, the latter listened to unconventional guides, made dramatic adjustments to their plans, and redrew their maps on the fly. And yes, luck always plays a part, but only for those who are open to it. Innovators who live to tell the tale of their great adventures seldom move in straight lines.

Practice circling your project -- double back and reconsider what you may have overlooked. Build prototypes and see what works and what doesn't work. Make enough laps and everything old becomes new again.

Want to make innovation an everyday, everywhere capability in your company? Read, rate, and share the innovation case studies from the Innovating Innovation Challenge on the MIX.

Jeff DeGraff is clinical professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. 

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The Management Innovation eXchange is a site dedicated to sparking conversation and progress around the most critical challenges that managers face today: How to create organizations that are fit for the future -- and fit for human beings. The MIX seeks to enlist as many in-the-trenches innovators, progressive leaders, and adventuresome thinkers as possible in pursuit of that goal. Users can submit, rate, and build on each others' ideas -- creating an open platform for management innovation. The MIX is supported by several leading institutions, including McKinsey & Co., Dell, HCL, Red Hat, London Business School, HSM, and the Human Capital Institute.

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