There are thousands of books and millions of articles written about innovation. However, there is still no clear view on what innovation is and how companies can become more innovative. And as important as innovation is to the continued success and very existence of a corporation, the process of innovation is a jumbled mess, with multiple and sometimes conflicting theories. Books and articles usually promote a specific methodology or a new tool or approach, which soon goes out of favor and replaced by another new approach. Even the definition and basic taxonomy of innovation vary, and there is no consensus on how to measure it.
If any other corporate function, such as finance, operations, manufacturing, or sales, had the same level of ambiguity, uncertainty, and unaccountability as the innovation process has, a business could hardly be run with any degree of effectiveness. It is unsurprising that companies are getting little return from their innovation investments.
A plethora of techniques designed to spur innovation have always been available. These days, some of the popular tools designed to transform a slow-growth company into an innovation-driven market leader may include:
- Sending executives to Silicon Valley to learn the secrets of innovation
- Applying lean techniques and rapid prototyping
- Applying data science and predictive analytics
- Adopting an open innovation platform
- Building an internal startup
- Acquiring a startup
- Adopting a fast-trial and fast-failure approach
- Building an office environment that provides the illusion of supporting innovative thinking
While all of these techniques have merit, we can safely assume that if there were a single solution that made companies innovative, we would have known about it by now, and everyone would have adopted it.
The simple fact is that the only way to become innovative is to understand what drives innovation and to establish conditions that let the drivers of innovation thrive. The most innovative companies do this instinctively—perhaps because of the culture instilled by superstar leaders, a conscious and successful effort, or the emergence of the right conditions after things just fell into place. But the fact is that every company can develop this innate innovation capability, something I call an innovation biome.
A natural biome is a specific environment that provides the macro conditions where a certain system of life exists. The biome provides the settings or conditions that determine what flourishes and what dies. An innovation biome is a corporate environment that lets innovation flourish. It requires a set of conditions to nurture it and allow it to propagate. Without the right biome, innovation efforts will undoubtedly fail.
An innovation biome is built on the foundational knowledge of what drives innovation. There are no tools to buy, no one-size-fits-all methodologies to adopt, no software platforms to deploy, and no quick-fix solutions to implement. A healthy biome requires that you and your organization understand that innovation is an ongoing process that will outlive every tool and methodology. The only way to realize the vision of innovation is by understanding and adopting the common principles of innovation that have worked well for thousands of years. They will work well for thousands more, but you must evolve your organization to ensure their presence. Just as the natural biome is established and evolves in a way that allows organic and natural breakthroughs to occur, the innovation biome provides the conditions that allow organizational breakthroughs to occur.
The first step towards your innovation journey should start with not blindly adopting the current popular techniques for innovation. While each technique may have examples of success, it may not be successful in your environment. One of the common misconceptions today in the field of innovation study is that while most experts agree there are different classes of innovation, they still promote a single set of tools. And innovation activities often fail because the tools that are best for a certain type of innovation are applied to something else, leading to a mismatch that impedes innovation.
For example, applying data science and analytics are great for advancing and improving your current products, but not for the creation of new breakthroughs and transformations. A large, consolidated team is better for incremental innovation, whereas smaller, disparate teams working independently are better for developing novel breakthroughs because multiple teams give rise to multiple approaches and you don’t know beforehand which one will be successful. Or using rapid and iterative development techniques works better for software than physical products. Failing to match the tools to the outcome makes innovation success a shot in the dark.
We know that innovation is an extremely complex and unstructured endeavor that is influenced by an almost infinite number of internal and external variables. The best we can do to develop a sustainable innovation environment is to understand the foundational elements of innovation, ensure they are understood by the entire organization, and continually strive to establish the presence of these elements and stay true to them.
The good news is that once the principles of innovation are woven into the fabric of an organization, the process of innovation becomes sustained and independent of any individual or technique. Only then can innovation become institutionalized; your organization can attain the elite and enviable level of sustained value creation and gain the rewards that go along with being a company that releases one great hit after another.