Fast Company

Reaction to Perpetuating Innovation Myths

Scott Berkun, author of “the myths of innovation”, has responded to my post last week commenting on his book.  In fairness to Scott, I am posting his reply here rather than leaving it buried in a blog comment.  I have also included some additional commentary.  First, here is Scott’s comment (paragraph breaks inserted for easy reading).

Hi James –

Thanks for mentioning the book. I took the risk of perpetuating myths quite seriously, and I don't think I did what you're suggesting here. Take this for example, from The Myths of Innovation, Chapter 3, pg. 44: "Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and Pixar, was asked 'how do you systematize innovation?' His answer was,

'You don't'(1). This was not what the readers of Business Week expected to hear, but foolish questions often receive disappointing answers. It's as absurd question as asking how to control the weather or herd cards, because those approximate the lack of control and number of variables inherent in innovation. Jobs, or any CEO, might have a system for trying to manage innovation, or a strategy for managing the risks of new ideas, but that's a far cry from systematizing something. I wouldn't call anything with a 50% failure rate a system, would you? The Boeing 777 has jet engines engineered for a guaranteed 99.99% reliability - now that's a system and a methodology. It's true that innovation is riskier than engineering, but that doesn't mean we should use words like system, control, or process so casually.'

Our disagreement might simply be about the words system, method or methodology. The failure rates for P&G, Google, or any poster child of an "innovation system" are extraordinarily high. They throw away many projects and ideas to obtain the handful that ever become products, much less successful ones. I think this is a a misuse of the word "system" or "method". At best what these folks do is expensive, risky and unpredictable. They experiment. And while there is significant work, planning and skill involved to manage experiments well, to call it a method you'd have to have much higher success rates.

You said: "Industry practice provides many very important examples of organizations that have successful implemented innovation programs—programs built on the assertion that innovation is a discipline that can be developed as a competency." Of course. But how many other companies that tried to do exactly the same thing failed? What is the ratio of successful implementations of these "methods" to failed ones? It's very high.

It's no surprise at this point that I find your suggestion I'm propagating a myth entirely unfair and unwarranted. There's little in my book that supports the status quo in any respect, most of my claims are support by research or at least industry anecdote, and I'm baffled at how one chapter, regardless of how awful it might have been, tanks your judgment of the other 9 :)

Best wishes, -Scott

Thanks for your response, Scott.  I do believe you took the risk of perpetuating innovation myths very seriously.  However, care and diligence do not guarantee the result.

First of all, it is a mistake to assert that any individual who has demonstrated some success in business (presumably via innovation) is thereby an expert on innovation.  The idea that organizations must accept low success rates from their innovation efforts is one based on a fundamental failure to understand the mechanisms available to drive high performance innovation.

Let’s consider for a moment one of the organizations you mention in your reply—P&G.  Here we see an organization that was plagued by an 84% failure rate in new product launches.  They realized that they needed to approach things differently and make innovation a core functional competence.  They have implemented many aspects of sustainable innovation practice, and the impact is undeniable.  P&G now enjoy the benefits of a 75% success rate—a stunning improvement by any measure.

While you might say that this is the exception that proves the rule, my observation and experience make it quite clear that this is not the case.  Where companies have made the innovation practice a true priority and not merely window dressing, the results have been predictably very strong.

As to the rest of your book, I have not said anything to suggest that my opinion of the rest of the content is negative.  Quite the contrary, I have said: “In all fairness, this book is a pleasant read.  It is well written, and Berkun’s style connects with the reader.”

However, the issue remains that there are many companies that are not sure what to do about innovation.  Should they embrace a path forward that integrates innovation thinking into their business and operating culture, or should they continue with the status quo and be content with the lack luster performance they see from their current innovation efforts.  It is clear that in the current global market climate, companies cannot afford to be complacent, but there is also a great pressure on these same companies to manage their risks well. 

This is why it is so important for these organizations to understand that there is a better way.  This is why I feel that this chapter of your book is so pivotal to the evolving innovation conversation, and why I have reacted as I have to your book.

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