Innovation Without Representation

As I was pulling out of the Government Center Garage the other night, I noticed an interesting license plate on the car ahead of me.  The Washington, D.C. plate sported the phrase, “Taxation Without Representation.”  This is a phrase that has a great deal of meaning in the United States.  It was an early call to action in revolutionary times, and it is still called upon from time to time to remind us of one of the fundamental values upon which this country was founded.

At first, seeing that license plate made me think of the current political climate we are experiencing, and I couldn’t help but think of the brazen irony of some of our legislators driving around with this declaration affixed to their automobiles.  But, then my thoughts drifted back to the world of innovation and the wisdom this expression holds for innovation practitioner and leaders.

How many times have you heard a colleague complain that management won’t listen to their great idea?  How many times have you seen a product launched that was greeted with a great collective yawn by the targeted customers?  How is that these think headed managers and customers don’t get it?  Or, does the fault lie in the failure of the innovator to listen to will of the people?

Anyone who is an innovation professional must recognize that they serve constituencies too.  The goal of innovation is to deliver value to customers.  More broadly, innovation must deliver value to all constituencies involved in the value creation and delivery chain.  This value must be perceived as significantly greater than the tax we extract from our constituencies.  Yes, that’s right.  By engaging in the pursuit of innovation, we are taxing our constituencies.

For management, the tax come in the form of funding of initiatives, resource costs, assumption of risks, and opportunity cost.  These can be very high hurdles for the innovator to get over.  If you try to run this gauntlet armed only with an idea, you will most like find yourself in a very uncomfortable position as you topple over one of the many hurdles.  Approach management with a full complement of data addressing these concerns and showing the value generation for the company and you are much more likely to find executive sponsorship.

For customers, the tax is the need to change to what they are used to doing.  This need to change is often accompanied by an uplift in price as we try to monetize the value of the innovation.  Needless to say, these taxes can be an impediment to the adoption of innovation.  Yet, there are countless times that I have seen companies forging ahead with new products, services, or business paradigms without really understanding what the people who vote with their pocketbooks need and want.

It’s not hard to see how these examples can be extended to all the groups involved in and with our efforts to innovate.  Setting aside our own belief in the brilliance of our concepts, it is not difficult to understand how we are destined to fail in our attempts to open new possibilities through our innovations if we don’t first understand all the constituencies that we touch along the way.  Understanding these constraints should be among our first tasks in planning for innovation.

To reframe that famous statement of James Otis, innovation without representation is tyranny.

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