You know that innovation is something new that creates value.
(But not too new)
Sometimes the value can be hard to describe, let alone quantify. You know that, ultimately, the value needs to be financial – more revenue, lower costs, higher profit. You also know that the value created in the short term will likely be more intangible – increased satisfaction, improved brand perception, and greater loyalty.
Your challenge, especially in tough economic times, is to tell a story that connects success indicators seen in the short term to the financial returns realized in the long term and maintain support and funding as the story unfolds.
That is a HUGE challenge! One that overwhelms most managers because they don’t know where to start let alone how to maintain support and momentum.
But you are not “most managers.” You know that the best place to start is at the beginning.
What is the Goal of Innovation (i.e., why are we investing in this)?
Goal #1: Create (or keep) a competitive advantage
Innovation is essential because it keeps you ahead of the competition.
Your business is already a leader in something that creates a competitive advantage, and your innovation efforts focus on keeping it that way.
For example, imagine you’re the President of Big Machine Co (BMC). You’ve been in business for decades in an industry with commoditized products, few competitors, high barriers to entry, and medium barriers to switching (i.e., it can be done, but it’s a pain).
You know that customer relationships and loyalty are the fuel that drives your business and why you’re #1 in the market. As a result, you focus your innovation efforts on creating new products or services that deliver unique value to your customers and provide easy and fast resolution to service issues.
Goal #2: Avoid (or overcome) competitive disadvantage
Innovation is essential because it keeps your business alive.
Your business is falling behind the competition either because you’re not keeping up with their pace of innovation or because you’re failing to deliver on table stakes like quality, price, or accessibility. You invest in innovation to catch up to the competition or regain your place in customers’ consideration.
Let’s go back to Big Machine Co. Because of the amazing growth you achieved as President, you’re now CEO (congrats!). The new President continued your innovation strategy but got so excited by everything new he forgot to pay attention to the “old” things – existing products, manufacturing capabilities, and people. Now, you’re #2 in the market and losing customers at a concerning rate.
It’s time to get back to basics and invest in “new to BMC” innovations by creating products that customers want and competition can already offer, investing in manufacturing equipment and processes that improve efficiency and quality, and retaining people who have the knowledge, experience, and relationships that are the heart of the business.
Goal #3: Build a reputation for being innovative
Innovation is essential because doing it makes the company look good (and executives and shareholders feel good), regardless of whether it produces results.
Your business demands innovation, new news, and big splashes. Your customers want novelty, not perfection. Image is everything, and perception is reality. You invest in innovation to show what’s possible, provoke conversation, and stay in the spotlight.
Believe it or not, this is on your mind as CEO of Big Machine Co. Your customers demand perfection, not novelty, but they need to shed the perception that they’re boring companies in a boring industry moving at a glacial pace to attract and retain the next generation of talent. You can help.
You look beyond the market to identify trends and technologies in the news but not yet in your industry. You identify the ones that could transform industries and make your customers’ eyes light up with wonder and excitement. You create proof of concept prototypes that make the vision tangible and discuss the plan and timing of the first step toward that vision.
How to Goal Helps
Your reason for innovating informs everything else – your strategy, structure, activities, metrics, and governance.
That is why you can only have one Why at a time.
Yes, it’s tempting to try to do a bit of everything, but that often results in achieving nothing.
Think back to Big Machine Co:
- If the products break, don’t perform as they should, or aren’t available when needed, it doesn’t matter how excellent the customer service is or how cool the new products are. You must achieve Goal #2 (avoid or overcome competitive disadvantage) to earn the right to pursue Goal #1 (create or maintain competitive advantage)
- If the products are the right quality, perform as expected, and arrive on time but the customer service is poor, and there are no new products, it’s hard to believe that a company that struggles to deliver incremental innovation can deliver on a radically innovative vision. You must make progress against Goal #1 to have permission to pursue Goal #3 (build a reputation).
The next time you face the challenge of connecting your innovation’s short-term success indicators to the long-term financial returns and maintaining support and funding, don’t be overwhelmed.
Go back to the beginning and explain, “It achieves (Goal #) so that we earn the right to invest in (Goal #).”
Everyone is an innovator on January 1.
That’s the day when each of us resolves to do something new that creates value.
- Start working out so I lose weight, look better, and feel healthier.
- Stop smoking, so I live longer.
- Turn off my computer and phone at 6:00 pm so I focus on family.
Only 20% of people are innovators on February 1. The rest of us gave up our resolutions and decided to keep doing the same things that create (good enough) value.
Your business is no different.
At the start of the fiscal year, you resolve to innovate!
- Explore new offerings, customers, and business models
- Experiment with new ways to get things done
- Enter new markets
Then something goes wrong, and you divert some people (not everyone!) from innovating to fixing an operational problem.
Then the first quarter starts coming in below expectations, and you cut budgets to stay on track to deliver the bottom line.
Then something else happens, and something else, and something else, and soon it’s “February 1,” and, for excellent and logical reasons, you give up your resolution to innovate and focus all your resources on operating and hitting your KPIs.
Resolve to Revive.
Innovation is something NEW that creates value.
New is hard. It’s difficult to start something new, and it’s challenging to continue doing it when things inevitably go awry. Investing in something uncertain is risky, primarily when more “certain” investment opportunities exist. It’s why New Year’s resolutions and Innovation strategies don’t stick.
Revival is the creation of new value from OLD.
When you work on Revival, you go back to the old things, the things you explored, tried, implemented, or even launched years ago that didn’t work then but could create more value than anything you’re doing today.
Your business is filled with Revival opportunities.
How to Reveal Revivals
Ask, “What did we do before…?”
Everything we do now – research, development, marketing, sales, communication, M&A – was done before smartphones, laptops, desktops, and even mainframes. Often new technology makes our work easier or more efficient. But sometimes, it just creates work and bad habits.
If you are trying to make Zoom/Teams calls less exhausting and more productive, try to remember meetings before Zoom/Teams. They were conference calls. So, next time you need to meet, revive and schedule a phone conference (or a cameras-off Zoom/Teams call).
Find the failures
Most companies are highly skilled at hiding any evidence of failure. But the memories and stories live on in the people who worked on them. Talk to them, and you may discover a blockbuster idea that failed for reasons you can quickly address.
Like Post-It Notes.
While some parts of the Post-Its story are true – the adhesive was discovered by accident and first used to bookmark pages in a hymnal, most people don’t know that 10 YEARS passed between hymnal use and market success. In that decade, the project was shelved twice, failed in a test market, and given away as free samples before it became successful.
Resurrect the Dead
The decision to exit a market or discontinue a product is never easy or done lightly. And once management makes the decision, people operate under the assumption that the company should never consider returning. But that belief can sometimes be wrong.
Consider Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery and one of its old ice cream shops.
In 1829, David G. Yuengling founded Eagle Brewing in Pottsville, PA. The business did well until, you guessed it, Prohibition. In 1920, D.G. Yuengling & Sons (formerly Eagle Brewing) built a plant across the street from their brewery and began producing ice cream. When Prohibition ends, brewing restarts, and ice cream production continues. Until 1985, when a new generation takes the helm at Yuengling and, under the guise of operational efficiency and business optimization, shut down the ice cream business to focus on beer. TWENTY-NINE YEARS later, executives looking for growth opportunities remembered the ice cream business and re-launched the product to overwhelming customer demand.
Just because you need growth doesn’t mean you need New.
Innovation is something new that creates value. But it doesn’t have to be new to the world.
Tremendous value can be created and captured by doing old things in new ways, markets, or eras.
After all, everything old is new again.
“What business are you in?”
How do you answer this all-too-common question?
Do you name the company you work for?
The industry you’re in?
The function you perform?
Bad news, your business isn’t defined by the company, the industry, and even your function.
Good news, the business you’re in is defined by your customers.
And their definition unlocks incredible potential for innovation and growth.
The 2:00 am Answer
In my first few months as an Assistant Brand Manager at P&G, I had a truly terrifying experience. Sitting in a training session, a senior executive locked eyes with me and asked, “What is Brand Equity?”
My first thought was, “you tell me, buddy. I’m the newbie here.” My second thought, and the one that came out of my mouth, was probably something straight out of a marketing textbook.
“Wrong!” he exclaimed. “Brand equity is what a consumer says if you wake them up from a dead sleep at 2:00 am and scream ‘What is [brand]?’ in their face.”
I don’t know what scared me more, being yelled at for being wrong or the idea that breaking and entering and screaming brand names at unsuspecting sleepers was suddenly part of my job description.
The 2:00 am Answer is the business you’re in
The 2:00 am answer applies to more than just brand equity.
It reveals the business you’re in.
Because it’s the Job to be Done your customers hire you to do
As the training went on, we learned how this mantra manifests in everything a brand (or company) does – its products, pricing, packaging, distribution, and marketing.
For example, if the most important thing to you about laundry is that clothes come out of the washing machine clean, you have dozens of options and probably buy the cheapest one.
But, if you want to be sure that clothes will be immaculate after the first wash because you know your kids will wear anything, even if it has stains, which will lead the other parents to judge you, you have one option – Tide.
Why the 2:00 am Answer matters
The 2:00 am Answer also defines where you have a right to play and to win.
Sometimes this space is bigger than you expect, revealing incredible opportunities for innovation and growth.
Sometimes it’s smaller than you want, exposing a strategic misalignment between what you offer and what your customers want. This happened to LEGO and took the company to the brink of bankruptcy.
In 1998, LEGO posted its first loss in company history. To reinvigorate growth, it shifted from being in the business of Toys to being in the business of Play. This led to two decisions that, while strategically aligned with Play, almost bankrupted the company. First was the introduction of new toys specifically designed to be built in less than 10 minutes so kids could start playing quickly. The second decision took LEGO into other aspects of play – video games, amusement parks, and a TV show supported by a line of action figures.
In 2003, LEGO reported a $238M loss, and with only one profitable product line, the future was bleak. So, LEGO started talking to customers (though probably not at 2:00 am). Through the conversations, LEGO learned that its expansion into all forms of play and the prioritization of Play over creation (building) wasn’t LEGO-y in the minds of consumers. So they rejected the new offerings. Instead, people loved LEGO because it offered “creative play” – the freedom and ability to turn ideas into tangible and interactive 3D models.
LEGO listened and went “back to the brick.” The results speak for themselves. In 2015, LEGO overtook Ferrari to become the world’s most powerful brand. In 2021, LEGO earned $8.06B in revenue, a 27% increase from the prior year.
How to get and use the 2:00 am Answer (without committing a felony)
First, get clear on the business you WANT to be in. Ask yourself and your colleagues, what do we want our customers to hire us to do? Push beyond the easy and obvious answers (usually functional Jobs to be Done). How do you want customers to feel after hiring your company (emotional Jobs to be Done)? How do you want them to be perceived (social Jobs to be Done)? What Job to be Done do you want to do uniquely well?
Second, talk to your customers one-on-one at a time and place of their choosing. Ask them why they hire your business. Again, push beyond the easy and obvious answers to understand what they want to feel and be perceived after choosing you. Ask what other options they considered and why they hired your business.
Find and close the gap. What’s the difference between what you wanted to hear and what you actually heard? If the gap is bigger than expected, how can you expand and innovate your business to grow into all the Jobs people want to hire you to do? If the gap is smaller, how can you shift or redirect efforts to grow in ways where you have permission to operate?
The 2:00 am Answer can be the key to defining, growing, and transforming your business.
Who says nothing good happens after midnight?
“What had a bigger impact on the project? The process you introduced or the people on the team?”
As much as I wanted to give all the credit to my brilliant process, I had to tell the truth.
“People. It’s always people.”
The right people doing the right work in the right way at the right time can do incredible, even impossible, things. But replace any “right” in the previous sentence, and even the smallest things can feel impossible. A process can increase the odds of doing the right work in the right way, but it’s no guarantee. It’s powerless in the hands of the wrong people.
But how do you assemble the right group of people? Start with the 3 Ts.
Type of Innovation
We’re all guilty of using “innovation” to describe anything that is even a little bit new and different. And we’ve probably all been punished for it.
Finding the right people for innovation start with defining what type of innovation they’ll work on
- Incremental: updating/modifying existing offerings that serve existing customers
- Adjacent: creating new offerings for existing customers OR re-positioning existing offerings to serve new customers
- Radical: new offerings or business models for new customers
Different innovation types require teams to grapple with different levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. Teams working on incremental innovations face low levels of ambiguity because they are modifying something that already exists, and they have relative certainty around cause and effect. However, teams working on radical innovations spend months grappling with ambiguity, certain only that they don’t know what they don’t know.
Time to launch
Regardless of the type of innovation, each innovation goes through roughly the same four steps:
- Discover a problem to be solved
- Design solutions
- Develop and test prototypes
- Launch and measure
The time allotted to work through all four steps determines the pace of the team’s work and, more importantly, how stakeholders make decisions. For example, the more time you have between the project start and the expected launch, the more time you have to explore, play, create, experiment, and gather robust data to inform decisions. But if you’re expected to go from project start to project launch in a year or less, you need to work quickly and make decisions based on available (rather than ideal) data.
Tasks to accomplish
Within each step of the innovation process are different tasks, and different people have different abilities and comfort levels with each. This is why there is growing evidence that experience in the phase of work is more important than industry or functional expertise for startups.
There are similar data for corporate innovators. In a study of over 100,000 people, researchers identified the type and prevalence of four types of innovators every organization needs:
- Generators (17% of the sample): Find new problems and ideate based on their own experience.
- Conceptualizers (19%): Define the problem and understand it through abstract analysis, most comfortable in early phases of innovation (e.g., Discover and Design)
- Implementers (41%): Put solutions to work through experiments and adjustments, most comfortable in later stages of innovation (Develop and Launch)
- Optimizers (23%): Systematically examine all alternatives to implement the best possible solution
Generators and Conceptualizers are most comfortable in the early stages of innovation (i.e., Discover and Design). Implementers and Optimizers are most comfortable in the later stages (e.g., Develop and Launch). The challenge for companies is that only 36% of employees fall into one of those two categories, and most tend to be senior managers and executives.
Putting high performers on innovation teams is tempting, and top talent often perceives such assignments as essential to promotion. But no one enjoys or benefits when the work they’re doing isn’t the work they’re good at. Instead, take time to work through the 3Ts, and you’ll assemble a truly terrific innovation team.
If you heard it once, you heard it a thousand times:
- Big companies can’t innovate
- We need to innovate before we get too big and slow
- Startups are innovative. Big companies are dinosaurs. They can’t innovate.
And yet you persevere because you know the truth:
Big companies CAN innovate.
They CHOOSE not to.
Using Innovation to drive growth is a choice.
Just like choosing to grow through acquisition or expansion into new markets is a choice.
All those choices are complex, uncertain, and risky. In fact:
Hold on. The odds of failure are the same!
All three growth drivers have similar failure rates, but no one says, “Big companies can’t acquire things” or “Big companies can’t expand into new markets.”
We expect big companies to engage in acquisitions and market expansion.
Failed acquisitions and market expansions prove us (or at least our expectations) wrong. Because we don’t like being wrong, we study our failures so that we can change, improve, and increase our odds of success next time.
We expect big companies to fail at innovation.
In this case, failure proves us right. We love being right, so we shrug and say, “Big companies can’t innovate.”
We let big companies off the hook.
Why are our expectations so different?
Since the dawn of commerce, businesses engaged in innovation, acquisitions, and market expansion. But innovation is different from M&A and market expansion in three fundamental ways:
- Innovation is “new” – Even though businesses have engaged in innovation, acquisitions, and market expansion since the very earliest days of commerce, innovation only recently became a topic worthy of discussion, study, and investment. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Innovation was recognized as worthy of research and deliberate investment.
- Innovation starts small – Unlike acquisitions and new markets that can be easily sized and forecasted, in the early days of an innovation, it’s hard to know how big it could be.
- Innovation takes time – Innovation doesn’t come with a predictable launch date. Even its possible launch date is usually 3 to 5 years away, unlike acquisition closing dates that are often within a year.
What can we do about this?
We can’t change what innovation is (new, small, and slow at the start), but we can change our expectations.
Finish the sentence – “Big companies can’t innovate” absolves companies of the responsibility to make a good-faith effort to try to innovate by making their struggles an unavoidable consequence of their size. But it’s not inevitable, and continuing the sentence proves it. Saying “Big companies can’t innovate because…” forces people to acknowledge the root causes of companies’ innovation struggles. In many ways, this was the great A-HA! of The Innovator’s Dilemma: Big companies can’t innovate because their focus on providing better (and more expensive) solutions to their best customers results in them ceding the low-end of the market and non-consumers to other companies.
Be honest – Once you’ve identified the root cause, you can choose to do something different (and get different results) or do everything the same (and get the same results). If you choose to keep doing the same things in the same ways, that’s fine. Own the decision.
Change your choice. Change your expectations – If you do choose to do things differently, address the root causes, and resolve the barriers, then walk the talk. Stop expecting innovation to fail and start expecting it to be as successful as your acquisition and market expansion efforts. Stop investing two people and $10 in innovation and start investing the same quantity and quality of resources as you invest and other growth efforts.
The first step in change is admitting that change is needed. When we accept that “big companies can’t innovate” simply because they’re big, we absolve them of their responsibility to follow through on proclamations and strategies about the importance of innovation as a strategic driver of growth.
It’s time to acknowledge that innovation (or lack thereof) is a choice and expect companies to own that choice and act and invest accordingly.
After all, would it be great to stop persevering and start innovating?
Several months ago, a colleague sent me a link to Roger Martin’s latest article, “The Presumption of Guilt: The Hidden Logical Barrier to Innovation.” Even though the article was authored by one of the preeminent thinkers in the field of innovation and strategy (in 2017, Thinkers50 voted him the #1 most influential management thinker in the world), I didn’t have too much hope that I would read something new or interesting. After all, I read A LOT of articles, and 99 times out of 100, I’m disappointed (80 times out of 100, I roll my eyes so hard I give myself a headache).
This one blew my mind.
With just a few sentences and applying a well-known analogy, Martin explained a phenomenon that plagues every organization and kills most innovation.
Presumed Innocence is a fundamental human right
Martin begins by pointing out that in the legal systems of modern democracies, all citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1948, the United Nations extended this concept to all nations (not just democracies) in Article 11.1 of their Declaration of Human Rights.
The presumption of innocence is so important because “the presumption of guilt (or even neutrality) puts an almost impossible burden on the defendant. The State is strong and has resources far beyond that of the individual.”
Presumed Innocence is not a fundamental innovation right
Now let’s apply this analogy and the lens of presumption of innocence or guilt to business, arguably a field where we spend much more time and make far more judgments.
You, and your fellow decision-makers, are judges and jury.
It is up to you to determine whether the projects in front of you are innocent (worthy of additional investment) or guilty (not worthy).
If you presume all defendants are guilty, you place the burden of proof on them. They must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they will succeed and are, therefore, worthy of investment.
If you presume all defendants are innocent, you place the burden of proof on yourself (or the business as a whole). You must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they will fail.
What type of judge are you? What kind of decision-making system do you preside over? Do you presume guilt or innocence?
In most boardrooms, projects are presumed guilty.
Presumptions in practice
Let’s consider the two “defendants” (types of projects) that appear before you – core business projects and innovation projects.
Each defendant has a team of advocates. The core business typically has a large team with ample resources and a history of success. Innovation has a much smaller team with far fewer resources and few, if any, “in-market” successes.
To be fair, you ask the same questions of both defendants – questions about market growth, performance versus competitors, and what the P&L looks like.
The team advocating for the core business produces data-filled slides, reports from reputable third parties, and financials blessed by Finance. In the deluge of facts, you forget that all the data is about the past, and you’re making decisions about the future. You find the evidence compelling (or at least reassuring), determine that the team met their burden of proof, declare the Core Business innocent, and allocate additional funds and people.
Innovation’s team also comes with slides, reports, and financials, but it’s not nearly as compelling as what you just saw from the current business team. But you are a fair judge, so you ask most questions like
- We believe we can get X% of a Total Addressable Market estimated to be Y
- There are no direct competitors, but consumers rated this better than current solutions
- We don’t have a 5-year NPV or P&L for this business at scale because we’re not asking for permission to launch. We’re asking for $100,000 to continue testing.
Believe? We need to know!
No direct competitors? Perhaps there’s a reason for that!
No P&L? I’m not going to throw scarce money away!
“Guilty!” you declare, “no more resources for you! Try again!”
This example illustrates what Roger Martin considers corporate innovation’s fatal flaw. In his article, he argues,
“the status quo must play the role of the prosecutor and prove that the innovation is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The innovation asserts its case, laying out the future that it imagines is plausible and explains the logic that buttresses the plausibility. The onus is on the status quo to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the innovation’s logic is flawed — e.g., the proposed economics are unrealistic, customers haven’t shown a hint of caring about the unique selling features of the innovation, competitors already have a lead on us in the proposed area, etc.
If the status quo can do so, then the innovation is guilty. If it can’t, then the innovation is not guilty, and the organization should invest.”
As much as I love the idea of requiring the status quo (managers? Executives? Stockholders?) to prove that investments should not be made (i.e., the default answer is “Yes” to all requests), it’s just not a practical solution.
Burden of proof as barrier
There’s another fundamental principle in our legal system that Martin doesn’t touch on: the burden of proof shifts as the stakes increase.
Specifically, the State’s burden of proof increases from warrant to arraignment to grand jury to trial. For example, the State must provide probable cause based on direct or other reliable information to get a warrant. But the State must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when the defendant goes to trial and risks losing their freedom or even their life.
But in the example above, the questions (proof required) remained the same.
The questions were appropriate for the Current Business because it’s already in the market, consuming massive resources, and its failure would have a catastrophic impact on the company.
But the questions aren’t appropriate for innovation in its early days. In fact, they were the business equivalent of demanding proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to get a search warrant. Instead, a judge evaluating a project in the early Design phase should ask for probable cause based on direct or other reliable information – observed consumer behavior, small-scale research findings, or simple prototypes.
The Verdict is In
I love the concept of Presumed Guilty vs. Presumed Innocent. I see it all the time in my work, and it is painfully prevalent in Innovation Council meetings and other boardrooms where managers sit as judge and jury over a project’s (ad a team’s) fate.
I want to flip the paradigm – To make “yes” the default instead of “No” and to require managers, the keepers of the status quo, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a project will fail.
But I don’t think it’s possible (if I’m wrong, PLEASE tell me!).
Instead, our best bet for true innovation justice is not to shift who bears the burden of proof but rather how heavy that burden is at various points. From probable cause when the stakes are low to beyond a reasonable doubt when they’re high. And certainly more than a ham sandwich at any point