Is Your Company Going Into Innovation Debt?

Innovation debt may not show up in Excel, but it will kill your company. Here's how to recognize it and fix it before it's too late.

"Innovation debt is the cost that companies incur when they don’t invest in their developers," Peter Bell writes in his personal blog. "It happens when the team is too busy putting out fires and finishing up features to keep up to date with advances in languages, frameworks, libraries, tools and processes."

While Bell—a dev and hacker himself—is talking about development, his point cuts across domains. No matter the discipline, if you don't invest in your talent, you will incur costs "like interest on an overdue loan." Like unchecked hypertension and furtive flatulence, innovation debt is a silent killer.

Getting into innovation debt is like inviting your competitors to disrupt you. To chip away at innovation debt, you invest in your people—but before we get to that, let's lay out the costs.

How innovation debt wrecks you

Bell goes into detail about the costs; since you're busy, we'll make it fast.

The best people will leave you: If you don't create any slack for your team, Bell says, they're not going to have time to learn anything new; if they can't learn anything new, they'll want to leave. So be like Einstein and give people time to think. Also: You have more time than you realize.

Your recruiting will unravel: Talent wants to work with talent. If your talent all left because they got burnt out from endlessly putting out fires, you won't attract more.

Your productivity will stagnate: Technology is constantly being developed to improve productivity. If you don't give people space to learn new technology, they won't grow more productive. And someone who's more productive will eat your lunch.

And you'll go stale: If you don't give people time to experiment, they won't; if you're not experimenting, someone else will be. And they'll eat your lunch, too.

Making the right human investments

You're employees are humans and they get better at working if you let them. So do these things:

Do lunch and learns: Your team should eat an edifying lunch together once a month, Bell says. Have one person give a show and tell about a project they're excited about. This will stoke conversation and understanding in your team, and maybe, just maybe, spark new ideas. (Also: capture those insights.)

Send people to conferences: Make sure everyone hits one good local conference a year, Bell says, and one out of town. They'll be exposed to new people and their ideas, which is crucial to innovation.

And learn to fail well: Just saying "fail fast" is getting a little trite, so understand that as Bell says, experimenting with a new technology isn't about using the tech; it's about knowing whether it's worth using. In that way, failing fast is research, not cliché.

Innovation debt

How do you invest in your team? Tell us about it in the comments.

[Image: Flickr user Arthur Caranta]

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5 Comments

  • Drew at Battenhall

    Great topic and post. Innovation is critical in our industry and at Battenhall we do it through a number of initiatives: all staff get time off for side projects as standard, a tech fund to spend as they wish, all staff are partners and have a say in the running of the company, and we foster a hacker ethos at work.

    In the past I have worked in places where staff opposed this way of working, which seems alien. A lot of companies in the creative industries are in innovation debt and won't realise until it's too late.  

  • Chris Reich

    Absolutely right on the money.  The problem is convincing the vast majority of small businesses that this applies to them!

    Most small businesses not only fail to innovate, they don't even keep pace with their market. I see way too much of this and it inevitably leads to business failure. It's painful to watch a well-established, owner-operated business go under.