I grew up in the Soviet Union and know a thing or two about the shortage of goods. The perennial chasing of hard-to-get stuff had instilled in me and my compatriots one simple habit: buy something first, while it’s still available, and then decide whether you need this something or not. This approach was especially useful for imported items, which were rarer and even more difficult to size up.
One such item was “French perfume.” I’m using quotation marks here because when buying a precious bottle — on the black market or through a friendly connection — one didn’t have the luxury to know the brand of the future acquisition. It was just it, a bottle of “French perfume.” Pondering if the intended receiver of the item, your wife or girlfriend, would have preferred Chanel, Guerlain, or Magie Noire, was completely pointless: you could buy only what you were given. On the positive side, your loved one wouldn’t care; she would just be delighted with the gift. She would also appreciate your effort to please her — and proud of your ability to get things done.
Today’s corporate innovation reminds me of this “French perfume.”
Volumes have been written by Ralph-Christian Ohr and others about the 3-Horizon Model of Innovation that places innovation projects into incremental, “adjacent,” and transformational buckets, each bucket implying a different time horizon and funding level. A complementary, equally useful, classification of corporate innovation projects into market-creating, sustaining, and efficiency innovations — each corresponding to a specific stage of business model development — was proposed by the late Clay Christensen and his colleagues.
And yet, time and again, our corporate innovation leaders can’t provide a working definition of what innovation means for their organizations. It’s just it, “innovation.” Innovation charters, a formal document outlining the major aspects of the organization’s innovation strategy, are almost unheard of. Attempts to introduce portfolio management of innovation projects are often met with a deadly fire because “structure” supposedly kills innovation. Worse, many corporate innovators sincerely believe that every innovation must be “disruptive” while all other types of it are for losers.
The lack of understanding of the various types of innovation inevitably leads to confusion about the available innovation tools. A simple idea that for each innovation objective there must be a specific innovation tool most suited for this objective, sounds almost foreign. Instead, one-size-fits-all fads follow each other like ocean waves hitting the innovation process shoreline — hackathons, skunkworks, innovation labs, corporate accelerators, corporate venture funds — with inevitable complaints of low innovation returns later. “Idea generation” campaigns are omnipresent, confusing minds, draining resources, frustrating participants, and resulting in pretty much nothing.
Steve Blank has a perfect definition for our corporate innovation process: innovation theater — and I humbly hope that my own term, “the French perfume innovation,” will become as popular as Blank’s.
What is to be done? My solution is simple, if not quite revolutionary: education. We need to get back to the drawing board and help organizations understand the very basics of innovation: definitions, typology, infrastructure, processes, metrics, and incentives. We need to create a set of short narratives (“Innovation101,” so to speak) giving organizations a place to start, in a practical and intuitive way.
No, I’m not calling on academics to stop deepening our scientific understanding of the innovation process. I’m urging them not to forget that by leaving behind knowledge that the innovation practitioners can’t use they make their further work less meaningful. Nor am I saying that the “new models of innovation” are completely useless. What I’m saying is let’s learn what we already have first.
Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.
Image provided by Tatiana Ivanov