Are We Crushing Real Innovation?

Well, this morning I came across an article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, entitled “America has become so anti-innovation – it’s economic suicide written by Ben Tarnoff, a writer on technology and politics, living in San Fransisco.

This article did disturb me, it triggered a number of validations in my own mind. Once you get past the opening rant about the infamous Juicero juicer, that has now been used as an illustration of how investors funded something that automates something that you can do faster by hand.

The article opens up the doors to questioning much that is going on under the Silicon Valley umbrella. The juicer got funding of $120m from a number of blue-chip VC’s but it was not this that actually disturbs me, it was this “ant-innovation” tag the writer was attaching to (North) America.

The article goes deeper in questioning where we are in our innovation thinking. We do have a real innovation growth dilemma that we can’t lay at the door of Silicon Valley alone, it is part of the Western world’s current sickness. It has lost that ability to take a positive risk in so much, ‘kicking the can down the road’ for others to resolve, be these societal, educational, health, infrastructural or institutional reforming and so much more. All really important innovation opportunities. Continue reading

Making those increasing connections

I am always looking for innovations connections. This last week I’ve been working around some different themes that grew in interest the more I investigated them, both in their importance and messages.

I’m undertaking a rather exciting approach to describing innovation, within a collaboration venture, that gets more exhilarating and inspiring as we explore, clarify and document. Regretfully I can’t share this here at present but I certainly will when it gets to that point of ‘release’.

Some of the different areas or themes I’ve been investigating have flowed from one set of enquiries that have taken me into another and then yet another. These simply get my innovation juices flowing and really are allowing me to make so many new connections. Here is just a few of these in this last week that have emerged from some of my researching that provide a host of thoughts:

Leaders & Laggards

In this group of investigations I started in trying to gain a better perspective of the discussion of leaders and laggards and what differentiates them. Timely to these investigations has been some recent studies by Capgemini Consulting and IESE Business School with a recent leadership study “Managing Innovation: An Insider’s Perspective”

I’d suggest the slideshare presentation is well worth taking some time out to view and understand as it covers views from those leading and managing innovation in their organizations and how they think about the innovation function http://tinyurl.com/c9o7cuw

Then I have been reminded of the continued great work of Chris Zook and James Allen, both partners at the consulting firm, Bain & Company, in their article “The Great Repeatable Business Model” http://tinyurl.com/d483eqq

The message of differentiation and the level of focus on clear specific areas of innovation and its management makes a real difference for separating leaders and laggards.

Those that endure and adapt

In the article by Chris Zook and James Allen they speak of differentiation that tends to wear with age and often the real problem is internal. It is complexity and in this a complex organization forgets what it is good at, it proliferates, it losses key people, it moves away from its core business, it losses focus and it begins to have that ‘great disconnect’ between upper management and the front-line employees. It seems to me the organization just simply begins to break down and lags even more in performance and returns.

They go on and suggest a lack of consistency begins to kill the economies of scale and equally retards the organizations ability to learn that adds up to them struggling with increasing complexity and fading differentiation.

I was looking for some of the enduring points of what needs to be put into place. This was offered “When a company internalizes a set of principles, the message no longer gets garbled. A shared point of view, core beliefs, and a common vocabulary improve everyone’s ability to communicate and foster self-organization.” They go on and suggest “this increases the speed of business, you capture more growth opportunities ahead of competitors and accomplish more per unit of time.”

I also liked one comment they made that “up and down the organization, information slows and grows distorted.” I would suggest without a clear knowledge capturing and dispersing structure for information this is not the only thing that gets distorted, often it is the real values of the innovation activities themselves. Those products or concepts that emerge eventually as completely out of shape from what was intended initially, due to this complexity within the decision and approval process, become totally different before something eventually gets ‘out of the door’ in finished design. So much gets lost or ‘distorted’ along the way and the end result becomes far too compromised on the customer need it was intended to resolve.

Innovation effort may not be worth it

Equally I always enjoy the thinking of Vijay Govindarajan and in a recent article along with Manish Tangri entitled “Why that innovation effort may not be worth it” http://tinyurl.com/847ah4c they discuss two key factors of motivation and competence and how you can put your organization and its leaders to the test.

They ask two great questions “How hungry are you for innovation?” and “Is the initiative set up for success”. I did like the point made of “a leader provides direction under ambiguity” and how many of our leaders would be truly comfortable in doing this?

Looping back we need to ask  how far are you from your core?

We come back to increasing complexity, straying from our core, communicating mixed messages, showing a clear lack of decisiveness.  If your innovation message is not sharp and convincing up and down your organization, or even understood by your customers you eventually lose out, you become even more of a laggard and allow others to slip away into clear leaders.

Part of our need in organizations is to stop breaking down the parts, layering on that increased complexity. We should be designing the innovation framework and system to clarify and inspire more. We need to reinforce more on where the key differentiation points are. We need to be sharper in our understanding of true differentiation and stick to this.

The key here is the real need to simplify and focus down within organizations.  Also we need to seek consistency wherever we can, in communications, in our strategic intent and in our dialogues to clarify. We tend to do the opposite, we make it too complex and this is killing innovation, killing growth, killing organizations. Above all we need to work up and down the organization with some clear, compelling messages that give clarity, allows for the necessary linkages and make sure the parts reinforce one another.

The last part of my walkabout in my research was “Creative Destruction”.

I recently wrote a blog “The Innovating Era: Creative Destruction or Destructive Creation?” http://tinyurl.com/dyy964s and in particular the destructive creation part and how this was destroying more than what was coming in its place. I finished with this comment: “All I hope is it will let us make sure we put the emphasis back far more on the “creative” innovation part and not the ‘destructive’ nature we have moved towards recently”.

Chris Zook has just written on this “When Creative Destruction Destroys More than it Creates” in the last week in an HBR blog http://tinyurl.com/7pe8qvf and makes an important point (in my mind) that “the extinction of once-great innovators is less often caused by technological or market evolution, and more often by self-inflicted wounds and slow cycles of decision and adaptation.”

He brings us back to the point “it is internal complexity that turns companies into lumbering dinosaurs.” The suggestion is, if we can’t keep ourselves clear on simplicity and focus and really tackle complexity as this is the “silent killer of profitable growth,” and “the greatest inhibitor of adaptability”.

Leading the way does falls to leaders.

My last extraction was from another lead and laggard viewpoint:  “A leader doesn’t tell people what to do. A leader helps people understand what needs to be done and brings the people and resources together to make it happen”

We need to focus on our greatest strengths but to do this we do need to understand them. It seems to me, so many leaders surprisingly don’t have a clue on how and where innovation can contribute in lasting differentiation, where the growth should be coming from or how to galvanise the organization to be simply on the same page to make sure it can happen.

We need some consistency in how we set about innovation.  Sometimes what simply scares me is that this basic task is often missed off the leaders agenda to actually make sure it is happening, often because they has not been fully involved or understood their role in this.

The Innovating Era: Creative Destruction or Destructive Creation?

Creative Destruction

We have been entering some perilous times recently and I can’t imagine when Joseph Schrumpeter outlined his groundbreaking efforts for explaining “creative destruction” he or anyone else, could image this being flipped around to what we are facing more today, that of “destructive creation”.

Schrumpter saw “creative destruction” as the renewing, through new innovation, society’s dynamics that would lead into higher levels of economic development and welfare. At the same time recognizing that this destroyed a few of the incumbents to the benefits of many more newcomers and increasing value creation for broader society.

Today it seems we are caught in the reverse of this- the process of “destructive creation”- where it benefits a few rather than the many. This sets out often to destroy or greatly diminish the usage value of existing products and services before it is optimal to actually do so, and in the process incurring often significant costs not taken into account at the time. These unforeseen issues have consequences that negatively affect parts of society not foreseen or contemplated at the time.

The shift has placed the emphasis on the role of destruction rather than creation in driving innovation activity. This is getting uncomfortable, innovation then becomes not so good for you perhaps? This is becoming the game for a few to make money, to corner markets, to dominate and wanting to achieve monopolistic positions and not so worried over the wealth creation aspects of creating jobs, building communities, cherishing certain values.

We need to be on guard in understanding the fundamentals within innovation as it should advance for the good of society, not be actually working to its detriment. Actually who is benefiting from the distribution of new wealth? The developed world is seeking desperately ways to regain growth but it needs to be more equitable, not in the hands of a few that determine our choices but increasingly seem unaccountable for their actions.

Firstly a couple of examples of “creative destruction”

A really good one was the arrival of the personal computer, the economy significantly profited without significant economic upheaval. It raised productivity and ushered in significant value for many.  The typewriter of course quickly became obsolete for this “creative destruction” and certainly the organizations investing in this lost out.

Another one has been the general advancement of technology. For example within the telecom sector where we were able to benefit from massive increases in managing data, calls and volumes around the world to connect us all up into a global economy. Old switch boards, chunky mainframes and old communicating technology were thrown out and this advancement in technology allowed the scarce resource of people to be employed differently and more productively. Technology has provided huge advancements but it also has its downsides.

The problem both of these examples have though is they are technology lead. Technology has been racing ahead. With the active encouragement of “policy innovation” and its stimulus we have been building more complexity as technology became more powerful. Complexity is everywhere. You add in scientific advances it has been a powerful combination effect of promoting social change- often radical social change. All positive, or has it been?

Today, we are dependent on complex technological systems to manage much, often incomprehensible to most if not all of us. Let me give you a couple of examples of the growing downsides we are seeing.

Let me provide some examples of “destructive creation”

Destruction form of creation

Derivatives- that dirty word that we have been struggling with over the past few years, that has been causing much within our current global downturn. At its heart was a system no one quite understood that created mortgage leverages, financial convertibles and it was in this proliferation of complexity and uncertainly these highly leveraged investments had become totally incoherent to us. The “destructive creation” part then kicks in often in unexpected ways with tragic consequences for many in lost jobs, lost homes, lost lives and lost investment money for  many, while a few made massive gains.

Asia was another example; its lightening speed in its growth had lead to a recent financial crisis simply triggered by capital account converting that shifting into a myriad of different financial instruments. The downside of that had not been anticipated in policy intervention and we had a significant scale of financial destruction that was not creative but destructive in its effect to the economies for some time. Again many people lost out, for some, recovery from this effect never occurred -it changed their lives, often to start again.

Although we are told there are sound risk models in place to assess and antiscipate, we certainly can’t look upon the promise from these with the same naivety in the future after a number of recent events. Much seems unpredictable in hidden consequences. But I would ask “have we lost the plot a little here”, perhaps we can’t really predict and control anymore, when the complexities we have built still continue and add even more layers. We need to accept more ‘destructive creation’ will occur.

The destructive effects presently going on in Europe

Let’s take Greece and its ‘melt down’ of the past twelve months. Could we have predicted the massive social unrest and serious economic decline in the approaches taken by the parties responsible for managing an orderly recovery?  How many times are we hearing “structural adjustment” to cover massive upheaval and watching a civil collapse happening on front of our eyes. Thousands of previously healthy businesses in Greece are being starved of finances, of demand and caught up in such social upheaval. This is destructive creation for the many who have got caught up in the ‘collective adjustment’ applied.

How will the Euro shake out in the coming months when our leaders just seem unable to get their heads around its complexity? This is a proliferation of complexity fuelling uncertainty. Is this because we have been great inventors and innovators or poor at working through all the consequences as analytics alone can’t explain these things in coherent ways, we just watch “destructive forces” being applied in the name of social and structural adjustment sweep away whole swaths of creative good as well.

The pursuit of growth and wealth is fine but are we balancing the conflicting values, consequences and upheavals well enough in the equation, otherwise it tips from this “creative destruction” over into “destructive creation” and that is not a healthy place for innovation to be.

The obsession with innovation- myself included!

Presently our Governments are obsessed with innovation- it sometimes feels it is the only game in town for future growth. Let’s just keep adding novelty and ever increasing value to get our economies going seems to be the mantra.  The problem is we seem to be destroying more than we can build at present, yet a ‘few’ gain from these seeds of “destructive creation” while a majority don’t. We need to flip this back to “creative destruction”.

How much of a society cost are we prepared to pay? Should all this be laid at the door of innovation? We need to inquire about, to explain and understand these forces, both the positive and negative far more. You can get to a certain point where you hit innovation saturation and we will begin to reject it unless we see its value invested within our community, not in others far away.

The replacement rate is speeding up

The other part of “destructive creation” is the attention we are all paying to the replacement rate. The way we discard our mobile phones, cars, household goods and creative increasing ‘toxic’ waste has its destructive creation part. These were foreseen, even have been actively encouraged to promote our economic well being but are they?

I know Steve Jobs and what he built at Apple is regarded as a beacon of success but there is a darker side to this. High rates of innovation, often not truly needed, can be disruptive to the larger society as a whole. A few jobs, many outsourced into low cost environments is leading to a jobless growth in the rest of the industry, it is destroying the usage value (useful life left) of existing products to the benefit of the few, rather than the many.  Some might call this a “shutdown game” establishing conditions that negatively affect values of other products, or is that still called offensive marketing, knowing exactly what the customer needs? I’m not 100% convinced.

Shareholder value is our focus point but what about the shut downs, those old, empty, rusty building that seem to be increasing not decreasing. We are faced more with de-industrialization issues than seeing re-industrialization coming from the present ‘destruction’ forces unleashed upon us all today. What is the cost of disruption and destruction of whole communities in social costs, in our investments for the future when we can’t ‘feel’ or see the benefits of “creative destruction” emerging?

There are many industries that start out thinking they are on the path to “creative destruction” but somewhere along the road got flipped into “destructive creation”. Often this was not the intended path but it became the consequence. Adding more just reinforced the greater destruction leaving it less creative, except in pockets of expertise.

Pressures suddenly built. Competition fell away, they went into troughs of uninspiring innovation for some time. Consumer software upgrades come to mind here, killing off perfectly good software to force us into upgrading but actually pushing us to search for alternatives, killing off useful gained knowledge and continued utility. Where is the cross over point in “creative” and “destruction”?

The quicker we adapt, the sharper we suffer declines somewhere else- technological choices and social consequences- new gadgets vs. decline in privacy for example. Yet the total industry consequence of one party dominating in “destructive creation” is only seen that much later on when the total decline cannot be stopped. It is often not one parties fault unless they are deliberate in their design but we are losing the ability to understand all the consequences of decisions, with unforeseen knock-on consequences .

For instance, if our banks don’t change as society is perceiving they should, and the policy makers seem unable to work through the complexity of this level of change, then society has two choices: remain with the present system where a few seem to gain over the majority, or seek out a change in the financial lending system so society again puts back “creative” at the front of “destruction” to benefit the broader community.

Let’s be honest, the banking industry has not been so innovative in many ways, besides enhancing wealth creation by the use of financial instruments or just to constantly sustain the existing ‘world order’. Will an alternative to our existing financial system evolve and or disrupt, but at what destructive cost?

Disconnects are all around.

There is, when you look around, a lot of seemingly partial and disconnected aspects to our advancement. Where are we in our debates on climate change, stem cell research, toxic chemicals, landfills and plenty more.

How will we manage the feeding of the world in years to come? How will we manage the old and sick. How will society re-integrate growing groups who are getting disenfranchised? All of these can be destructive or built on constructive ways that ‘create’ orderly change. Yet, they seem bogged down in complexity, opposing forces and we are not breaking through these in new order ways. We somehow must.

There are always it seems contesting sides and consistent daily arguments from all sides in complex arguments about how the world would work and why their solution provides the answer. The problem is we simply don’t know. We seem to be losing comprehension of the bigger picture. I’m not sure when you try to describe the big picture it really is so coherent and that is one of our big problems.

Issues are just far too complex.

We are facing more uncertainly and incoherence than ever. Should we call a moratorium on innovation or is it just invention? Can we afford too?

It is interesting observation, we do seem to have moved back to enjoy narratives, myths and cult stories more than in the past, is that a yearning for something from the past in our  lives where one person tells a story that just made sense as it seemed full of wisdom and real good for many?

I think we, as humans, have been reduced down and until we can regain mastery over the complex, needing a structural and societal adjustment or we otherwise will continue to suffer the consequences of “destructive creation.” I think we might start yearning for the good old days of just “creative destruction.” Is technology leading and we are lagging? Can we regain control?

So some commentators have suggested that we have to reawaken our imaginations and really think deeply about our values. Then innovation can perhaps return to being context-specific working in positive enhancing ways to improve society as a whole and not be used for a selected few. All I hope is it will let us ensure we put the emphais back far more on the “creative” innovation part and not the ‘destructive’ nature we have been moving towards recently.

Certainly inspired and some points drawn from a paper “Destructive Creation and the New World Order” by Paul Harris & Daniel Sarewitz

For whom the bell tolls

I read two short articles over this weekend. One was entitled “Avoiding Innovation’s Terrible Toll” written by Spencer E Ante, published in the Wall Street Journal (http://on.wsj.com/zJ9IIT ) and the other by Jeffrey Phillips “When executives talk about innovation, watch out” in his innovate on purpose blog here (http://bit.ly/wpaqWu)

I felt the heavy sound of the bells tolling away coming through both articles and it reminded me of For Whom the Bell Tolls a famous novel by Ernest Hemingway.

The first was the sad demises of Kodak

If you have not seen the day of Revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing.- For Whom the Bell Tolls

Rochester may not be the ideal place to live, the headquarters for Kodak but it was the place that thousands of people earned their living by being associated with Kodak. They worked there, they supported it in the community, and they mostly benefitted from it. What saddens me of course is that they at Kodak did not have that ability to react to such dramatic changes within their industry.

“There isn’t any need to deny everything there’s been just because you are going to lose it.”
– Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ch. 38

What really saddens me more, is the real loss for so many, that put their hearts and souls into making Kodak what is was, it must be crushing to see where this previous giant has been heading in these past few years. I knew a number of Kodak executives, full of pride, full of belief yet all this has been crumbling in this force of creative destruction. It is a heavy sound for me. Perhaps they were powerless to stop this, even in different circumstances and even if they had made some different decisions. Innovation can be a destructive force but it is the person involved who often pays. Spare a thought for those within the Kodak community also, their lives are being changed dramatically.

The second was Yahoo to do more innovation and disruption.

To make war all you need is intelligence. But to win you need talent and material.
For Whom the Bell Tolls

Scott Thompson in becoming the new CEO at Yahoo explained in a recent interview he believes Yahoo as a technology company has both “disruption” and “innovation” at its core.

Jeffrey quiet rightly questions Yahoo and its recent record. They led as innovators for some time then they lost it, or so it seemed. They are more disrupted than disruptor today. Regaining its prominence will be a really hard road to travel.  In another article (http://read.bi/ytCR3E ) the writer starts by asking this set of ‘reasonable‘ opening questions- “how a guy who has zero media, content or advertising experience is expected to turn around a company that makes ALL of its money through media, content, and advertising”.

How little we know of what there is to know.
For Whom the Bell Tolls

I stood up and cheered on what Jeffrey stated at the end of his article.

“What I’d like to hear from Thompson, and other executives is a clearly delineated strategy, which emphasizes growth, or differentiation, or operational excellence, or customer intimacy, and then hear them talk about how innovation is going to help them achieve these strategies and retain leadership in these strategies.  Right now we are putting too much emphasis on innovation – a tool which should be used in service of strategy, rather than putting the emphasis where it belongs first – on the strategy”.

I definitely could not say that better Jeffrey.

It reminded me of another line from for Whom the Bell Tolls

Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that ever come can depend on what you do today. It’s been that way all this year. It’s been that way so many times. All of war is that way – For Whom the Bell Tolls

We face today events that will call for destruction, for disruption but lets remember the two things here, the hard work put in by many people that often get ‘short changed’ due to leaders making bold statements that might be a touch unrealistic, or just simply playing to the audience that cries out for these things in the name of innovation.

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”?

Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never sends to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. . . .from Meditation 17 by John Donne

The act of innovation demands much from us all but we all do need to take care- it can excite, it can deliver new promise but it can also destroy those that do not fully appreciate its powerful effects and leave many simply wondering.

Spare a thought for those who work in the trenches when you claim “innovation” will lead us to that ‘Promised Land,’ it usually means climbing over others who were simply caught up in this destruction going on around them, to powerless to do anything. We should all pause for the demise of one and question the belief of others, about to take us into fresh battles.

We should demand more from our leaders and can feel let down when they are not capable to deliver for often their real blind spots, dogma or given mindsets. We can all become more cautious and that is not so good for innovation’s health but it should be based on a deeper understanding of the power of innovation’s forces, both good and not so good.

Oh, now, now, now, the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is thy prophet.” ― Ernest Hemingway