The dark side of innovation

The dark side of innovation

All companies are in great need of innovation. From the largest global multibillion highly successful enterprises to the smallest start-ups, innovation is their life insurance policy; either we’re talking about their survival for the next 5 years or 5 months from now

But how companies really embrace it is a different story.  Business history is full of spectacular cases of how failing to recognize the potential of new ideas ultimately brought the strongest organizations down to their knees. Big names like Kodak, Nokia or RIM/Blackberry are just few examples of cases where opportunities were there, but management was too busy focusing on what they always did best, missing out the changes in the market.


Innovation is not only about great ideas that lead to technological developments and create new markets or disrupt existing ones, but is above all about constraints. Brainstorming sessions can be completely useless, unless limitations are clearly stated and taken into account from the very beginning. Interestingly, creativity is stronger and more efficient as people are forced to find smart solutions and think outside the box, but within the box.


This paradox creates power and can be found everywhere from nature to countries and cultures. Under the pressure to perform and/or survive, the fewer resources you have, the more determined and creative you’ll have to be to achieve the same results as someone who has it all. But there’s a catch. For the same outcome, you’ve used far less resources, thus your efficiency and profits are much higher. And you’ve just invented new technologies and tools that would allow your company to be more relevant to the market, more appealing to consumers and even bring to surface new market segments where your products & services could thrive in peace for a while, until competitors catch up and replicate. And that’s how innovation pays off. The other thing is that it has to be a continuous process, otherwise the temporary advantage will be diluted and at some point eliminated, making company’s competing power subpar. In the business world this can make the difference between success and failure.


However, innovation is anything but easy – because it comes with its killer conjoined twin: Change. Most people say they accept and support innovation process, but this lasts until they realize that, at some point, change is needed. Changing the way people are used to be successful, work, behave and navigate inside an organization is a mission hard to accomplish. People will reject change and in turn they try to eliminate innovation, returning to the familiar ways of doing things, which have passed the test of time and easy to prove as being efficient.


Change is the biggest enemy of innovation, since it affects the individuals, groups, organizations, industries and even society. People are at the origin of innovation, but often ideas do not penetrate further due to individual fear or resistance to change. And even if the climate is open to innovation, when in groups, individuals are afraid to express their ideas in order not to appear dumb or be criticized by others. The group dynamics can create taboos and set expectations in a specific way so that all ideas have to fit the same framework, which is familiar and easy to manage and measure. Organizations can also bring constraints since innovation have to be consistent with company strategy in order to be accepted and most importantly receive access to proper resources. Many times, innovation is not aligned with the strategy, as its added value is not yet put to use, so it’s quite an easy target.


And the list continues with industries – which by default tend to follow standards and best practices and instinctively reject novelty which pushes their course in a different direction - and even society itself which is organized with respect to tradition, cultural rules and norms restricting innovation.


Because it seems that many want to hunt down and kill innovation, it makes it even more important for companies to ensure that their innovative intentions are not just a statement, but a process well defined, structured and explained at all the necessary levels. Communication can do a great job here. People will be more open as they understand how change will actually make their life better, how the business case behind an idea works, what the benefits are and why innovation is instrumental on any market. The innovation climate has to be created, grown and maintained at the enterprise level, by identifying and aligning the major stakeholders and making sure that results are relevant to their interests and mission.


Although, from an aerial view it makes great sense to invest and sustain innovation, you have to make sure this belief is truly shared and supported by the rest of the company, who understands its dark side – as it involves the dreaded uncomfortable process of change, being born out of trials and tribulations of limiting constraints, so that in the end, if done properly, it will fast forward the company to the next level.