Innovation is No Longer a Choice -- It is about Death or Glory

April 24, 2008
To regain a competitive edge, manufacturers must make a fundamental shift in the way that innovation is perceived and delivered.

Innovation is a key factor in the strength of both the manufacturing industry and the U.S. economy as a whole. Much of the new technology in a given industry is invented by manufacturers, so the importance of innovation in the industry cannot be overstated. Factors like globalization, advances in technology and regulatory changes are reshaping the competitive landscape -- and the ability to spot problems or opportunities and take innovative action is surging in value.

At the same time, innovation in the industry seems to be slowing down. According to a study prepared for the Council of Manufacturing Associations and the Manufacturing Institute, manufacturing output is lagging, as is total plant and equipment investment. There is a growing shortage of skilled workers, and the U.S. pre-eminence in R&D is being challenged. In short, U.S. manufacturing is falling behind.

To regain a competitive edge, manufacturers must make a fundamental shift in the way that innovation is perceived and delivered. Innovation is often seen as a slow, laborious and expensive process. Trying new things may present a long-term benefit for a company, but in the short-term it can be a distraction -- or worse, a diversion of time and resources that can cause production to fall behind. It can require heavy investments, all with no guarantee that the results will yield success.

Recent research shows that while innovation is seen as important in most organizations, the components needed to drive innovation are often lacking, in need of refinement, or misunderstood altogether. Executives cited "lack of time," administrative delays and confusion about the process as major inhibitors to innovation, and though these are often valid excuses, they are symptomatic of a greater cultural problem that pervades even many of the industry's leading organizations.


In ?What If!'s 16 years of innovation experience, we've found that at the core of this problem are some fundamental and damaging misassumptions. Commonly held beliefs like "innovation is about process," "it always requires significant investments of time and money," and "it sits solely in the hands of R&D" are simply incorrect, and can halt innovative thinking before it even begins. And that can spell death for a company. Quite simply, innovation is no longer a choice -- it is about death or glory.

Through our experience of hundreds of innovation projects and programs around the globe, we're convinced that although innovation is a deeply complex multivariate phenomenon, at its heart lies a single subject: people. It is the way that people behave with one another that determines innovation success or failure. Unless people are encouraged to think differently, are rewarded for having ideas, are empowered because the responsibility for innovation doesn't belong solely to R&D, innovation cannot become rooted in or spread throughout an organization.

The way to develop an innovative organization starts with getting leadership buy-in from the outset and making time for innovation a priority. Senior managers must support innovation efforts, be open to change and risk-taking, and involve the whole workforce as early as possible. This behavioral shift is crucial and will allow innovation to flourish within your organization.

Furthermore, innovation need not exist only in the world of new products or packaging. A creative, innovative organization encourages employees of all levels and functions to constantly look for better ways to streamline or improve every aspect of the business. This could include order processing, stock control, accounting procedures, logistics and warehousing. Even the smallest incremental innovations add up and can have a measurable effect on the bottom line.

In fairness to those who find excuses not to innovate, product innovation in the manufacturing industry is often slow -- with more relative investment (capital, time, people) than other industries like online or service -- all with no guarantee that the innovation will succeed or not be copied immediately by your competitors. But this is not reason enough to abandon innovation. Innovation outside of new products -- around distribution, communication, packaging, and pricing -- can be quicker, cheaper and as impactful as new product innovation, if done right. Moreover, innovation is key to gaining competitive advantage.

Even when it comes to the R&D groups, too many companies have grasped the importance of incremental product innovation, only to put in place rigorous 'innovation pipelines' that churn out line extension after line extension. "New Product Innovation" then becomes a process of simply ticking a box. In our opinion, the companies that are succeeding in this area have R&D decision-makers that understand the importance of consumer and customer insight, and invest their time and money with that insight in mind. They work closely with the marketing department to identify the big opportunities -- without assuming the consumer can articulate what he really wants. Ideally, the scientific and consumer understanding intersect without one always driving the other.

The trouble is that the business environment is a harsh place for ideas, and they are easily killed in the very early stages. Comments such as, "we tried that before in 1987 and it flopped," or "it will never work with our regulatory restrictions" are far too common -- and absolutely fatal to idea generation and growth. For innovation to thrive everyone involved must make a behavioral shift -- looking for what could work, whether in practice or principle, rather than what won't. By making this behavioral shift, even those ideas that seem least viable could become winners -- and are likely solutions that the competition would have overlooked.

A Case Study

At ?What If!, we worked on a toilet cleaner project a number of years ago (more fun than it sounds) and as part of an ideas session a member of the team said "Why don't we have a bomb that you throw into the toilet and it cleans everything?!" This seemed like a ridiculous idea at the time -- and one which could be immediately killed through analysis of health and safety concerns -- but instead, the project team opted to greenhouse the idea and develop the thinking around its formation. The underlying principle was of course that the toilet cleaner did the work for you. Eventually, an active foam product was developed -- a product that you spray into your toilet and leave to do the cleaning. This idea, which has changed the lives of many toilet phobes, was thanks to people behaving in the right way around ideas and nurturing other people's thinking.

These are the hard truths of innovation: it is a cultural thing, it involves risks, it requires board-level leadership buy in, and behavioral shifts can take a long time. However, without innovation living and breathing in every part of your organization and your people, you take the bigger risk of not meeting your consumers' needs and ultimately losing competitive advantage or simply failing right out of the gate.

Blake Glenn is a Senior Inventor at ?What If!, an independent innovation company, working in more than 40 countries worldwide across all market sectors, through a team of more than 300 people with offices in the U.S., UK and China.

?What If! USA works with many of the world's admired companies, including Astra Zeneca, Unilever, Molson-Coors, Coca Cola, BP and Citi, to innovate their people, products, services and brands.

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