Is Innovation Too Messy To Be Managed And Taught? Hardly

by Brian Quinn
published in Fast Company Design

As an innovation consultant, I found the recent Co.Design post “Do Innovation Consultants Kill Innovation? troubling. Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen are right to castigate much of the innovation consulting industry, which is unfortunately full of firms that have rebranded themselves as innovation experts. Just peruse the website of any large consulting firm. Yesterday’s management, brand, or operations consultant is today’s innovation guru.

The problem these consultants run into is that most of them have no ability to actually create an innovation, and so they fall back on what they really know how to do: They analyze. They promote stage gate and pipeline management, statistically normalizing these by industry to tell you just how many innovation ideas your company needs at each point to succeed. Just don’t ask them to help you actually generate or improve any of the ideas themselves. So I’m happy to also cast a stone at the “custodians” and “wordslingers” described in their piece. But what I found really troubling is the article’s core thesis: That innovation is too “messy” to professionalize, and therefore enterprises should not invest in building internal innovation capabilities. That perspective is simply uninformed and needlessly reductive.

The authors attack innovation processes, arguing that “the difference between success and disaster is largely defined by the selection of a good team—not by its processes.” Of course, the team driving an innovation initiative matters, but simply throwing smart people in a room and asking them to innovate will not produce success. You might as well ask them to teach themselves the violin while they’re in there. A talented team will produce successful innovations when they’re equipped with a systematic approach that’s connected to the broader organization in the right ways. Innovation doesn’t depend on either a good team or good process. It depends on both.

 

The authors believe innovation “should be an attitude that organically runs through the culture of an organization.” I actually have no idea what an “attitude” of innovation is, but let’s assume they’re arguing that innovation should not be a distinct function within a company but rather the responsibility of every employee. While that model of innovation can be effective—3M or Google come to mind—it’s far from the only viable one and will not work for many organizations. And even when that is the chosen model, productively engaging every employee in innovation requires a clearly defined innovation strategy (i.e., where and how our enterprise will innovate), understood roles for participants, and processes whereby workers can contribute concepts and ideas. However these organizational elements are branded internally, they are part of a “professionalized” innovation capability. Without them, the enterprise will flail about, producing lots of small ideas that never add up to anything substantive, and over time employees will disengage as their efforts fail to find traction.

 

The authors contend that companies should look to “the high-tech, biotech, and the movie industries” for inspiration. Really? The most recent analysis shows that the probability of FDA approval for a biotech drug is better than the pharmaceutical industry average—though hardly thrilling at 15%. In Hollywood, a screenplay is the equivalent of a chemical compound. Roughly ten of them are purchased for every movie actually produced by a studio, and every film produced isn’t profitable. It’s hard to commend an innovation model with a hit rate well below 10%.

 

Pixar is a rare exception. The studio’s 12 films have grossed over $7 billion and have received 39 Academy Award nominations. Pixar follows a signature development process that is highly structured, iterative, and collaborative. In other words, there is a unique “Pixar way” that obviously adds value beyond Hollywood’s typical ad hoc assemblages of talent.

 

I whole-heartedly agree that companies should have external networks connecting them to talented individuals and organizations. But again, firms don’t have to choose between internal capabilities and external networks—both are valuable. Procter & Gamble’s renowned Connect + Develop program is an excellent example of a company looking to solicit and integrate ideas and technology from the outside world. But as P&G’s VP of external business development, Jeff Weedman states, “We don’t look at Connect + Develop to replace our R&D department. ”

 

The notion that innovation is too messy to professionalize is reminiscent of arguments about building marketing functions roughly 40 years ago—that it required the “golden gut” of talented individuals or other intangibles that couldn’t be taught, nurtured, or built. Today, marketing is widely acknowledged as a discipline, with clear processes, organizational structures, research tools, and talent embedded at companies such as Coke and Disney.

 

My colleagues at Doblin have believed in the discipline of innovation for 30 years, and we’ve watched it bear the fruit of breakthrough growth and sustainable competitive advantage time and time again. Sure, it resists reduction or easy formulas. And just as every organization is different, there is no single model for how a company should build their innovation capabilities. But we encourage business leaders everywhere to recognize innovation as a discipline, believe that reliable and repeatable methods do exist, and invest in building their own capabilities—with or without the help of consultants.

But if you do find yourself in need of innovation consultants (gasp), an important question to ask is: What innovations have they actually created? Review what they’ve been able to bring into the world. Such an examination will swiftly sort out those who merely bloviate about innovation from the handful that can actually help you do it.