Innovation Stigma

Innovation Telltale
June 28, 2008
The LAB: Innovation in Real Time
July 23, 2008

Innovation Stigma

There is an inherent bias against innovation despite the enormous value it holds for organizations. Corporate executives know that innovation is the only true long term growth engine for their firm. Yet innovation carries with it a certain stigma, a perception in the minds of executives, that it is "soft" and frivolous compared to other hard core business activities like productivity, quality, and demand generation. This stigma deters executives from taking risk and investing in serious innovation initiatives.

There is an inherent bias against innovation despite the enormous value it holds for organizations.  Corporate executives know that innovation is the only true long term growth engine for their firm.  Yet innovation carries with it a certain stigma, a perception in the minds of executives, that it is “soft” and frivolous compared to other hard core business activities like productivity, quality, and demand generation.  This stigma deters executives from taking risk and investing in serious innovation initiatives.

The innovation industry itself is partly to blame.  Participants in the innovation space tend to perpetuate a mystique about innovation and creativity as though it is a deeply hidden secret that needs to be unleashed.  Walk into many innovation sessions and what you see are cans of Silly StringTM, Slinky(R) toys, Frisbees, and funny nose glasses.  The notion here is that people need to be more playful to have that “eureka” moment and invent the next blockbuster idea.  People are conditioned to believe innovation requires “skunk-works” in a specially-designed room to pursue “white space opportunities.”   Innovation is voodoo.

In an effort to differentiate themselves, participants in the innovation space create novel names for their programs and services.  Here is a very small sample: Innovations-Radar(R), Innovation Cube(R), Challenge AcceleratorTM, 360-IA(R), SpinnovatorTM, Idea BucketTM, AlphaStormingTM, Excursion DeckTM, Mindscan(R), IdeaSpring(R), Super Digilab(R), etc, etc.  The list is overwhelming and it tends to confuse the market.  More importantly, what is the efficacy of these tools?  Do they work?  The granddaddy of them all, Brainstorming, is certainly suspect given the many studies that suggest otherwise.

Is there an innovation bias?  I am polling Fortune 100 executives to describe the characteristics of people who champion certain business causes.  I ask them to describe the typical age, experience, credentials, aspirations, and personality of:

  • Productivity Champions
  • Process Excellence Champions
  • Innovation Champions
  • Leadership Champions
  • Brand Champions

The early feedback suggests innovation champions, compared to the others, are seen as more eager, altruistic “dreamers” who are out of touch with the business.  One executive described innovation champions as necessary but had low expectations of actual results.  Of more concern is the perception executives have about themselves in this role.  My sense is business people shy away from championing innovation because they believe the stigma of failing at innovation is more career-damaging than failing at other ventures.

The innovation industry needs to play a role in improving the image of innovation.  Fortunately, there are resources like Innovation Tools and CREAX that consolidate the innovation space and help companies make sense of the different offerings.  More prominence needs to be given to the classic researchers in innovation and creativity like Ronald Finke, Thomas Ward, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Jacob Goldenberg.  We need to get back to the basics of what makes innovation work so we can skip the hype.

The innovation bias has to be overcome if companies want to make progress and grow.  Leaders need to address this head on.  How?  Just as they learned to champion leadership by first becoming an authentic leader, they need to champion innovation by first becoming an authentic innovator.