Why is Innovation so Hard?
By James Robertson

Each passing week I read another article telling business people that they need to innovate. You must have read many of these, and yet if we were all to grasp the mettle as exhorted, and innovate enough to come up with the next breakthrough product or service, the world would be unimaginably different from what it is today. To put that more simply, we are not innovating as much as we should, and the obvious question is “why not?”

Why not? Because it is hard. No, it is not hard to come up with an innovation. I teach people how to do this and in every course I am thrilled at how, with a little training and nurturing, people display an amazing amount of inventiveness. Not just once in the time we spend together, but repeatedly they come up with products/services/systems that are clever, practical, profitable, and downright enchanting. And yet few, very few, of these innovations see the light of commercial day.

Again, why not? Look around you; the answer is within your own organisation. While people are very good at innovating (or can be made so), organisations (except a few) have a poor track record when it comes to implementing their own innovations. The paradox is that while we can systematise innovation (to a point), we have not been able to systematise the adoption of innovations.

There are reasons why not, and looking at them helps us to understand, and perhaps overcome, this problem.

Recognise your explorers—innovation is not the same thing as invention, and most innovations make use of existing components. Printing your own boarding pass before going to the airport is an innovation, but none of the components—Internet, web browser, reservation, seat assignment, printer—are in any way new. Explorers, sometime called technology brokers, are the people who look for new technologies, processes, systems and so on that can be recombined to make some useful innovation. Sometimes these raw materials for innovations are to be found outside your organisation, and sometimes they already exist somewhere inside. But here’s the thing: the explorer is attached to one project (let’s call this the Dragon Project) and the raw materials are the property of another project (the Tiger Project). When the explorer comes nosing around the Tiger Project he is unlikely to be given a warm welcome. Why would the Tiger team take valuable time away from their work to give away resources for which they (rightly) want to claim credit?

Moreover, the explorer does not necessarily know what he is looking for, and so must spend a lot of time looking at raw material that may ultimately prove to be of no value. How many organisations willingly give time to explorers to (unproductively in the short term) check other projects and other organisations?

Innovations can come too late in the development cycle—It is not so much that people hate change, but they hate to be changed. Most innovations are a change to someone’s work, and naturally they hate it. Unless they have some compelling reason (and it does not have to be a rational reason), they will most likely reject the change simply because it is a change. However, there is a time to change and that is early in the development cycle before attitudes and proposed solutions become too fixed. Also, it is early n the project when enthusiasm is at its highest, and people are more likely to accept proposed innovations.
Organisations protect the status quo—no, keep reading. This is not yet another rant against management.  I want to quote Peter Drucker here: “Management tends to believe that anything that has lasted for a fair amount of time must be normal and go on forever. Anything that contradicts what we have come to consider as a law of nature is then rejected as unsound.” I am completely sympathetic to this attitude. Most managers are judged on the performance of the organisation (or part thereof) they control. Almost always the yardsticks used to judge do not include innovation. So how can we expect the harassed manager (these days that almost all of them) to welcome a change to the established practices and processes? Additionally, if the innovation will significantly alter the way the manager does her job, then we have every right to expect she will reject the innovation. To accept it is understandably risky and unrewarded.

You don't always know where your innovation will lead you—innovation is messy, and the outcome of an innovative project is not always neatly predictable. I think the best example I can give of this is Google. Larry and Sergey did not know where their interest in search engines would take them. They played around with it for several years before starting a company. Even then, they had no idea how to make money from it. Many other innovations have led off in directions not anticipated by the innovators.

This lack of predictability makes it hard to get funding for an innovation project, as sometimes the benefits from the innovation are not known, nor can they be known until the project is practically over.

Disrupting the dominant design—the best innovations don’t always win. Sadly, many profitable and wonderful innovations are unjustly cast aside. By way of illustration, I shall use the Robertson (no relation) screw. Almost anyone who has attempted to tighten a screw with the slotted head will know the frustrating, and sometimes painful, occurrence of the screwdriver slipping out of the screw. The Phillips head screw is an improvement with its cross-shaped slots of the screwdriver. It is the most popular type of screw in the world today. But now consider the Robertson screw: it has a square hole for the screwdriver. Not only does can the screwdriver not slip, but also the screwdriver stays in the screw head if you let go of the driver. It is the only screw and driver combination that can be used with one hand. In other words, this is undeniably the best design for a screw and its driver.

Be honest now. Have you ever heard of the Robertson screw? Readers in Canada will say yes; it is very popular there. But the rest of the world continues to use the inferior Phillips head screws. Why? Because Phillips is the dominant design and the cost of changing is seen by most as too disruptive and expensive.

Windows is the dominant design for personal computer operating systems. As their proponents will happily tell you, either Mac OS X or Linux (depending on proponent) are superior, and Linux has the added advantage of being free. Yet most organisations have no plans to dump Windows any time soon. The United States is still measuring using feet and inches and gallons. Some dominant designs are hard to shift. Your QWERTY keyboard is one of them.

Finding the sweet spot—this is about making your innovation such that the perceived advantage of adopting it overcomes the disruption to your work (or your life) by taking it on board. For example, you might find a terrific new calendar and address book application, but it means having to transfer all the addresses and appointments you have in the old organiser to the new one. Is it worthwhile? Supposing that the transfer is not easy—the old calendar has some proprietary formats and you might have to re-type some of the data. Now, how good does the new one have to be to get you to do that?

The sweet spot (the terminology comes from Scott Berkun) is the point at which the apparent advantage of the innovation is greater in the consumer’s mind than the disadvantage of adopting it. Berkun goes on to suggest that the most successful innovations are not the ones displaying the best ideas, but the ones that achieve the sweet spot and appear to have advantages and are easily adopted.

Innovation isn’t hard, it’s having the innovation adopted—I was a little disingenuous with my title for this piece. Innovation itself is not so hard. There are processes we can follow to make it easier. It is always possible to innovate better business processes, computer systems or consumer goods. The hard part is recognising that the hard part happens once you have your innovation and have to convince a reluctant organisation or consumer to adopt it. Unless you have people in your organisation whose job title includes “evangelist” or similar, you are probably not taking full advantage of the innovations that are happening there. Until organisations recognise that the hard part comes after the innovation happens, then innovation is bound to be hard.

James Robertson is a requirements consultant who advocates that innovation must be part of the requirements process if systems are to remain appropriate for today’s business world. He is co-author of Mastering the Requirements Process, regularly taught to full houses. His new Innovation & Requirements course is now available.