Most people think innovation is all about ideas, when in fact it is more about delivery, people, and process. Entrepreneurs looking to innovate need to understand the execution challenge if they expect their startup to carve out a profitable niche in the marketplace, and keep innovating to build and maintain a sustainable competitive advantage.
Everyone thinks they know how to make innovation happen, but I can’t find much real research on the subject. At the same time, myths about innovation are commonplace in business. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, in their book “The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge” have done the best recent research I have seen on this subject.
They take you step-by-step through the innovation execution process, in the context the ten most common myths about innovation, which I think makes their approach particularly instructive:
- Innovation is all about ideas. While it is true that you can’t get started without an idea, the importance of the Big Hunt is vastly overrated. Ideas are only beginnings. Without the necessary focus, discipline, and resources on execution, nothing happens.
- A great leader never fails at innovation. When it comes to innovation, there is nothing simple about execution. The inherent conflicts between innovation and ongoing operations are simply too fundamental and too powerful for one person to tackle alone.
- Effective innovation leaders are subversives fighting the system. Effective innovation leaders are not necessarily the biggest risk takers, mavericks, and rebels. The primary virtue of an effective innovation leader is humility. What you want is integration with real-world operations, not an undisciplined and chaotic mess.
- Everyone can be an innovator. Ideation is everyone’s job, as are small improvements in each employee’s direct sphere of responsibility. Yet most team members don’t have the bandwidth or interest to do their existing job, and well as address major innovations.
- Real innovation happens bottoms-up. Innovation initiatives of any appreciable scale require a formal, intentional resource commitment. That requires the focus and resources from top executives to sustain, even initiate, relevant efforts.
- Innovation can be embedded inside an established organization. Some forms of innovation can be embedded, like continuous product improvement, but discontinuous innovation is basically incompatible with ongoing operations.
- Initiating innovation requires wholesale organizational change. Innovation requires only targeted change. The first principle is to do no harm to existing operations. A common approach that works is to use dedicated teams to structure innovative efforts.
- Innovation can only happen in skunk works. Innovation should not be isolated from ongoing operations. There must be engagement between the two. Nearly every worthwhile innovation initiative needs to leverage existing assets and capabilities.
- Innovation is unmanageable chaos. Unfortunately, best practices for generating ideas have almost nothing to do with best practices for moving them forward. Innovation must be closely and carefully managed, during the 99% of the journey that is execution.
- Only startups can innovate. Luckily for entrepreneurs, many large companies are convinced that they must leave innovation to startups. Yet research suggests that many of the world’s biggest problems can only be solved by large, established corporations.
Everyone agrees that the goal of innovation is positive change, to make someone or something better. Entrepreneurs need it to start, and established companies need it to survive. The front end of innovation, or “ideating” is the energizing and glamorous part. Execution seems like behind-the-scenes dirty work. But without the reality of execution, big ideas go nowhere, even in startups.