Are we playing snakes and ladders with innovation?

Snakes and Ladders 1Have you ever played snakes and ladders? Called chutes and ladders in the US. A number of “ladders” and “snakes” are pictured on the board, each connecting two specific board squares.

The object of the game is to navigate one’s game piece, according to dice rolls, from the start (bottom square) to the finish (top square), helped or hindered by ladders and snakes respectively.

Originally from India the game is a simple race contest based on sheer luck and I am beginning to wonder if we are playing a new version of this with innovation? This is called “bust or boom” or “success or failure” or even “maybe or maybe not,” or even “will we, won’t we.” It just all depends on our luck in rolling the dice, a serendipity with a darker twist that many companies seem to be playing with their innovation capability building.

The game came to mind as I read through a recent survey on Innovation

I have just been reading an Innovation report / survey from Accenture called “Clear Vision, Cloudy Execution” and I really do think we are playing with innovation as a game, it has some really serious implications within it that need more drawing out than possibly offered in my view. We should be getting worried that many bigger companies are losing the innovation game.

Accenture in a survey conducted with 500 US Executives leads with this conclusion:

“US Executives are unrealistic in believing they have the capabilities they need to achieve their bold goals. The truth is that most struggle to generate the returns they seek from their innovation investments”

Yet it seems companies are confident in their innovation performance, awarding themselves high marks as innovators, even rating themselves as very positive in their performance against their (known) competitors. So tell me where is the growth then? Why are our public companies continuing to buy back their shares, shrink their work forces and continue to chase the cheaper investment alternatives of relocating where the tax breaks continue to bolster the returns of short-term thinking?

Accenture in their report details (this opens a PDF file) rightly  points out “confidence is a good thing” but in their experience “that companies that believe they have superior innovation capabilities are less likely to take steps to improve their innovation processes, culture, capabilities and operating models”

Also “that leaders are less likely to appreciate (and explain to management teams) that innovation is a complex discipline that requires diverse approaches“. This is when you are on the ascendancy (often mistakenly) and throwing the dice and progressing up the ladder of my snakes and ladders analogy.

The issue seems to be on not really understanding how they innovate or what is needed to innovate consistently.

The snakes that are all around, according to Accenture, are that companies don’t learn from past mistakes, miss market opportunities and are risk averse. They have badly slipped back on these.

It does seem to have become a “board” game of playing with innovation on a “shall we, shan’t we invest, sustain or allow” what we have gained to slither away as we roll the dice one more time. This time we land on the snake and slid back on our innovation progress from a series of market failures and often start again, often with a change in the innovation leadership.

Before I get ahead of myself let me explain the origin of snakes and ladders  

Referring to Wikipedia: the game snakes and ladders was originally from India. “The game was popular in ancient India by the name Moksha Patam. It was also associated with traditional Hindu philosophy contrasting karma and kama, or destiny and desire.

When the game was brought to England, the Indian virtues and vices were replaced by English ones in hopes of better reflecting Victorian doctrines of morality. Squares of Fulfillment, Grace and Success were accessible by ladders of Thrift, Penitence and Industry and snakes of Indulgence, Disobedience and Indolence caused one to end up in Illness, Disgrace and Poverty. While the Indian version of the game had snakes outnumbering ladders, the English counterpart was more forgiving as it contained each in the same amount.

This concept of equality signifies the cultural ideal that for every sin one commits, there exists another chance at redemption. Have we this same luxury with the management and building of innovation?

The sins we are still committing in the name of innovation pursuit.

The Accenture survey of executives and managers within 500 U.S. companies reveals that six in 10 (60 percent) said their companies do not learn from past mistakes. This is nearly double the 36 percent who admitted to this three years ago when Accenture last conducted a similar survey.

Nearly three-fourths (72 percent) indicate their firm’s often miss opportunities to exploit underdeveloped areas or markets versus 53 percent three years ago.

More than two-thirds (67 percent) believe their companies are risk averse, a large increase from 46 percent revealed in the previous survey.

The survey also shows that 82 percent admit they do not distinguish their innovation approaches between incremental versus large-scale transformational change – meaning they use a single “one-size-fits-all” approach to achieve different goals.

Also most respondents said they have “big” innovation ideas but are missing an organizational “home” with the company. So their ideas often go nowhere.

“A significant gap exists between what U.S. companies want to achieve in the innovation arena versus what they are able to do,” said Adi Alon, managing director, Accenture Strategy.  “They want to innovate yet they need to take different and bolder actions to achieve transformational, major revenue-generating innovation. True innovation requires aggressive changes in technologies, operating models and talent.”

The recognition that the chances of redemption are certainly getting less

Yet also emerging from this survey was this really far more bullish view on disruptive innovation compared to the survey undertaken three years ago.

For instance, 84 percent said they believe innovation is key for their long-term success compared with 67 percent three years ago.

The same percentage of respondents – 84 percent – said they are looking for the “next silver bullet,” meaning a market-defining innovation rather than incremental iterations of the same products.

Creating new products is a priority for almost half (47 percent) of respondents, an increase of 20 percentage points from three years ago.

Accenture believes the building blocks of successful innovation are being put into place, few have assembled those fundamental elements in a way that drives the changes needed to generate the investment returns. I would really disagree with this with what they are indicating as the “sins of slippage” reported.

Accenture conclude “companies are embracing innovation as a tool to drive their business forward” but “they need to learn how to flex their innovation muscles with new thinking, new collaborations and new approaches to execution.”

They also are suggesting that it seems organizations have not yet learned clearly enough on how they innovate and can’t distinguish beyond achieving incremental performance gains and this executive desire wishing for transformational change. It still seems hugely at odds with their actual record (of performance) and the realities, shown in their responses to this survey and their belief and assertions of having innovation prowess and dominance. There is a significant mismatch occurring. This needs a far greater “call out” to recognize this set of inherent weaknesses.

Companies are seemingly playing this innovation game of ‘snakes and ladders’, rolling the dice expecting the “silver bullet” to power them up the winning ladder but then finding themselves suddenly landing on the snake (of reality) to slip back down. Innovation seems to still be left to chance, just like my game suggested and that is a risky game.

There are more snakes than ladders in the new board game of innovation

It is about time this “board game” of innovation snakes and ladders is put away and recognizes we are far more playing the “game of thrones” where the struggle is constantly evolving Kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars, lords and honest men…we are in a disruptive world where we are all wanting to play the ‘Game of Thrones.’

This game of thrones includes start-ups, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, competitors unheard of previously as suddenly arriving, emerging entities from ‘distant’ lands and those who see as adjacent or making new combinations powered by collaboration and new technologies, all wanting to surround and dethrone the incumbent. This is today’s reality.

Listening to the messenger we might be mistaking our real position

I disagree with Accenture that “embracing innovation as a tool,” it needs to be a real core, not simply a tool ,within our companies; better funded, understood and defended, it should not slip back as it seems to have done, indicated by the results from this survey.

Equally I feel in the results that companies are not on the right path unless we enjoy the game of constantly slipping back is not how I would be reading these results, yet Accenture are suggesting this.

I do think they (Accenture) have some of their conclusions wrong and are not delivering the serious messages this survey is bringing out in a way they should. Innovation is not a game to be left to chance, the roll of the dice or the ‘quiet’ acceptance of playing seemingly ‘snakes and ladders’ with it.

Having “building blocks being put into place” after years of talking about innovation is a real concern. I would have thought companies should be far more ahead than this. If the survey results are indicating such deterioration’s in some of the most critical aspects I feel the report seems more advocating a “quiet acceptance” whereas the results are a disaster.

I can’t understand the approach here. I would argue Big Corporate America is deluding itself on its innovation prowess it has serious issues to address if it truly believes growth will come from innovation if it is accepting this deteriorating outcome. It is the consultants role, from its data, to paint the ‘realities’ of this in starker ways. I would.

Accenture might have reported this outcome differently than it chose too. I think they missed the opportunity to deliver a darker warning here. Perhaps they felt not equipped to deliver this starker message but I believe they should have, the deterioration is worrying.

The world is not waiting for those steadily putting in place their building blocks

In my take on the world today, the reality is, we are all facing an increasing world of disruption and simply believing in finding (by chance) or just looking for that ‘silver bullet’ is not a winning position, it is a gambling one. Have our larger companies taken up the role of a gambler, enjoying the thrill of simply rolling the dice but more than likely not have more than ‘equal chance’ of winning the game. Are they feeling beaten already? It increasingly seems so. Innovation is an imperative we can’t afford to let slip back.

Having a good, clear focus on innovation, its value, contribution and the commitment it needs helps stack the winning odds in your favor or at least, equips you to fight in a really changing, challenging world we are presently in.

The real warning signs big US business is in deep serious innovation trouble

It does still seem that many US executives are deluding themselves on their innovation competences. Their mistaken beliefs and lack of real understanding of the complexities within good innovation management should not left to the ebbs and flows of chance, whim or short-term thinking. The need is by seriously putting into place a dedicated structure, well resourced and competent team,  built from a comprehensive understanding of innovation and its management. That requires a deeper thinking than most are prepared to do.

If executives continue to accept not to learn from past mistakes, constantly miss opportunities to exploit, big ideas are going nowhere and remain risk adverse, yet they keep looking for the ‘silver bullet’ as their solution, they are in deep trouble.

Watch out others are playing a different game

It is far more likely to come far too late for many incumbents as others, schooled in lean and agile thinking, searching for unmet needs or under-served opportunities will have disrupted them, well before this as they are constantly learning from their mistakes, consistently experimenting, exploring and exploiting opportunities by pivoting constantly, in the pursue of big ideas and embracing risk. That is a bedrock of much of the thinking that goes into innovation, market development, change exploration and growth generation

I would be very troubled to read this Accenture report if I was Corporate America.

The tone of US companies being on the right pathway, suggested by the authors, doesn’t help when you have such big boulders causing giant gaps in this innovation journey. It does seem the need to find a new pathway of innovation needs urgently finding.

We can’t afford to play this game of ‘snakes and ladders’ with innovation anymore and this survey should be a real wake up call to all those living in their ‘corporate’ ivory towers the real world is ‘eating you for breakfast, lunch and dinner’, the attacks on your established positions are constant, global and relentless. If you don’t feel surrounded, you soon will be.

This is the right time to wake up to the realities and reading a report / survey as seemingly benign but potentially lethal as this one from Accenture, one that on first read it might seem, is ‘clothed’ in reassuring tones,  yet it does seem to have some very worrying messages within it, believe me.

I would be very worried within the large US companies equally if they just take the suggested medicine offered here in this survey , they need to really forge a new more radical innovation pathway but will they simply keep playing the innovation snakes and ladders they seem to be doing?

One thought on “Are we playing snakes and ladders with innovation?

  1. Pingback: No Company deserves to survive with apathy in its future | Paul4innovating's Innovation Views

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