Innovation Alibis

Alibi; noun: alibi; plural: alibis;
Informal use: an excuse or pretext; e.g. “a catch-all alibi for failure and inadequacy”
synonyms: defence, defending evidence, plea.

There isn’t (yet) a book on Amazon called, ‘The little book of Innovation Alibis,” but there should be and maybe I will have to take on that job! For now, I will kick things off with this slightly tongue in cheek, somewhat ironic and definitely pointed piece on the various innovation alibis we encounter on a near daily basis. I know as a species we love a good excuse, but it is laughable how quick on the draw we are with the many reasons why our innovation efforts fail to deliver what we wanted of them.

The closest thing I could find to a pre-existing book of innovation alibis was a series of Dilbert cartoons. I am going to draw on these throughout this article. If they were to compile these, then I may have my little book of innovation alibis and can move on to the next idea in my long list of ideas I would like to see come to life (which does exist!).

Alibi #1: We just don’t have the right culture. Only start-ups can innovate

I met with a global retailer a couple of years back. I won’t mention their name, but their global leadership team were all in London for a workshop and one of the big topics was culture of innovation. They had set up meetings with a number of early stage businesses with the objective of trying to learn what they did that made them innovative. The pretext to this was that this business, founded in the mid-90s, had once been the disrupter, it had once had that drive and need to innovate. However, somewhere along the way, it had lost this entirely, and like many companies its size, had become big, sluggish, resistant to change and had no idea at all how to recover any of that innovative culture.

We just don’t have the right culture. Only start-ups can innovate

I would argue that the imperative and capability to innovate can have nothing at all to do with the age and stage of a company. Yes, there are many innovative start-ups out there, they are uninhibited by overly complex governance, have no need for overly bureaucratic project initiation documents, are not restricted by innovation killers such as compliance or risk management. But, there are many other start-ups that are not innovative at all. Similarly, there are many larger organisation that are truly innovative, pioneering and very open to change. If you happen to have spent any time at Facebook or Google then this is pretty apparent, but even in less obvious spheres the same is true.
This leads me on quite nicely to my next alibi, I will let Dilbert take this one first:

Alibi 2: We don’t have the right kind of people to be innovative

We don’t have the right kind of people to be innovative

I am told, almost daily, by people I speak with in global organisations, that they do not have creative people, tech savvy people, innovative people or some other cop out reason why their people are the reason they can’t/don’t/wont innovate. This is the probably the most frustrating of all the half-baked excuses for our innovation failings. Those of us working in the innovation space have done such a good job purporting the myth that innovation is a unique gift, granted only to the lucky few and we lucky few all happen to have chosen the pathway of innovation services or advisory work. We all knew our calling and were led to our destiny. Surely no-one really believes this? We are all capable of innovating, we may not be the most innovative thinker in the world, we may not be the next Musk or Jobs, but that does not mean we are not capable of being innovative.

We need to flip this on its head. Let’s start with the premise that we do have the right kind of people to be innovative and start to challenge ourselves how we unlock this competency and capability within our talent pool. I can guarantee that for every misguided assertion you have about that person over the room from you and their lack of innovative drive or ability, there are a handful of stories from their personal life where they have found creative and innovative ways to solve a problem, support a love one, do something for the community etc. If you are always told you can’t do something, that it is a special skill only others can do, how can you ever expect that person to then do that thing. We kill innovation before it even has a pulse, and I don’t even think we really believe the assertion that drives this.

Alibi 3: Yeah, we are super innovative, you should come and see our innovation lab

Yeah we are super innovative, you should come and see our innovation lab

Labs are great, but let’s stop pretending they are our innovation panacea. Do you have an innovation lab within your business? What does it do? Who works there?

I am not, in any way, opposed to the concept of innovation labs. However, we must stop pretending as organisations that these labs are our innovation strategy, our innovation pathway, the golden ticket to our next generation organisation and the home to the smartest people in our organisation who are freer to think and try new things.

These things may all be true. But I doubt it. And more to the point, I believe you also doubt it. Too many labs are marketing suites for the next generation of foot soldiers for our global businesses. A showcase of how as global organisations we are embracing a more flexible working approach, with a more open plan style and a willingness to innovate. Again, if we are honest about what our labs are (and are not) then I am fairly at ease with whatever you chose to do with them. However, your labs are not your innovation strategy, they are not the entirety of your innovation portfolio. If they are I would challenge you to rethink. A great test is to see whether as a leadership team you would continue to build this part of your business if the balance sheet was more strained. Is this just fair weather innovation more suited to your talent recruitment and development programme than innovating on your next generation organisation?

Alibi 4: Buzz word innovation doth not an innovation strategy make!

Very closely aligned with the above alibi I the world of jargon and rhetoric. I recently met with the CEO of a global services firm, who when challenged on his firm’s innovation strategy told me proudly they had a very good innovation strategy and had recently done and event with robots. I couldn’t even bring myself to ask for any more clarity on this as it was neither the time or the place. However, what he said and the sincerity and pride with which he relayed this information, is commonplace across the innovation spectrum.

Buzz word innovation doth not an innovation strategy make!

Within the innovation sector we are equally culpable. If your newest marketing messaging doesn’t have something to do with Artificial Intelligence powered by bots, then quite frankly you are a luddite and your business model will be irrelevant by the morning. We all need to take a share of the blame here.

I think that part of the problem is, per the above cartoon, a lack of understanding of the topics at hand. We hear so much about blockchain, AI, bots, crypto, NLP, automation, and before that apps, networks, virtualisation, the cloud etc., that if we can’t get it in to a conversation we are somehow worried we might seem ignorant or stupid. The problem isn’t, to be clear, the trends themselves. I am a huge proponent of a clearly developed innovation strategy that neatly embraces the potential role of AI across the value chain of an organisation, that recognises the follow-the-sun potential of smart chat bots to serve our customers and to free up our talented human resource to focus on more value-added, customer centric issues and opportunities. The point here is, start with why, explore the options and build the plan. Don’t run off into the work of buzz word bingo, invest the crown jewels (or more likely wholly underinvest) and then realise you have merely wasted a lot of time, money and employee satisfaction, without generating any relevant return.

Alibi 5: We have tried a more open approach to ideas and it just doesn’t work for us

We have tried a more open approach to ideas and it just doesn’t work for us

Do you really have an open culture, where new ideas are welcome and are given a chance to be heard, to be debated, to be tested, and if not right, to be killed without serious fallout or consequence? Far too many companies live by this myth and it needs to change. Luckily, there are great tools on the market that are helping firms to build a more open, transparent and collaborative approach to ideas and innovation. For anyone interested I wrote a piece outlining the key features of these tools earlier this year.

The reality is that firms that embrace a more open approach problem solving, to change, to employee engagement and to innovation drive greater shareholder value over a longer period of time.

I therefore challenge you to think more about the various alibis and excuses you use. Try and catch yourself before you use one of these again. Are these genuine reasons and even if you think they are, is it ok for you to sit back and let them be true reasons for inhibiting your innovation efforts. I think we are all better than this. We have become sloppy and lazy in our innovation efforts. Ought we really then be surprised at how little they yield?

Have you experienced these or other innovation alibis? I welcome your thoughts and other examples in the comments below…..

Credit: Dilbert (various) by Scott Adams