Innovation Dilemmas

Innovation Archetypes
May 10, 2009
Are YOU an Innovator?
May 30, 2009

Innovation Dilemmas

Innovation creates dilemmas, and these dilemmas can either help or hinder your innovation effort. Dilemmas arise when we confront natural tensions between two apparent opposite ideas or concepts. In business we face these dilemmas all the time: cost vs. quality, centralization vs. decentralization, stability vs. change, short term results vs. long term competitiveness. Dilemmas are dynamic but inevitable. They don't go away. They must be managed over time.

Innovation creates dilemmas, and these dilemmas can either help or hinder your innovation effort.  Dilemmas arise when we confront natural tensions between two apparent opposite ideas or concepts.  In business we face these dilemmas all the time:  cost vs. quality, centralization vs. decentralization, stability vs. change, short term results vs. long term competitiveness.  Dilemmas are dynamic but inevitable.  They don’t go away.  They must be managed over time.

The key is to recognize the difference between dilemmas, which are not resolvable, and problems which are resolvable.  Problems differ from dilemmas in that they are decidable.  We have independent options to address problems usually through some fixed trade-off between options.  Problems can be solved, resolved, and decided – once and for all.  Natural tensions are not solved or decided.  They are ongoing.  Professors Josh Klayman and Jackie Gnepp address this in their course, “Implementing Innovation and Change” at the University of Chicago.  The course helps students recognize the difference between dilemmas and problems.  They learn strategies to help manage and balance these dilemmas over time.

Here are the innovation dilemmas (tensions) I observe in organizations:

  • Whether to invest in Innovation vs. development
  • Whether to pursue disruptive ideas vs. incremental ideas
  • Whether to use Problem-to-Solution vs. Solution-to-Problem approaches
  • Whether to use Divergence vs. Convergence
  • Whether to build innovation teams with diversity vs. content expertise

Managers often struggle with the first dilemma because they are weighing the value of creating new ideas against the payoff from finishing the projects they already have in the pipeline.  A common mistake is to reduce innovation because you do not have enough R&D resources to develop the ideas.  The irony of this dilemma is that you can actually accelerate development by spending more time on ideating.  This happens two ways: first, it is likely you may find new, innovative ways to simplify existing projects or eliminate certain aspects of them.  Second, you strengthen your internal case for more development resources by showing senior management the quality and size of your ideation pipeline.  Over-innovating is better than under-innovating.

Teams struggle with what kind of ideas to pursue: disruptive or incremental.  Clayton Christensen and others have popularized the notion of disruptive innovation as the priority over all others.  Managers tend to undervalue incremental ideas because they are…well, incremental.  This somehow translates into unexciting or risk adverse.  To manage this dilemma, managers need to think more in terms of finding the “innovation sweet spot,” that place somewhere between disruptive and incremental.  The right balance between risk and reward is more likely to occur here.

Innovation facilitators often face the dilemma of which direction of innovation to follow:  Problem-to-Solution vs. Solution-to-Problem methods.  As with all dilemmas, the key is finding the right balance between the two and not to rely too heavily on one over the other.  When a customer problem is well known and well understood, it is tempting to use just the Problem-to-Solution genre of methods.  This is a mistake as it eliminates the highly novel and less-obvious solutions that can be created with the other approach.  Facilitators also have to balance between divergence versus converging down to the most viable ideas.  Spending too much time with divergent ideation can frustrate team members as the ideas become too wild and far out.  People lose interest and become cynical.

Finally, team leaders need to manage the dilemma of how to form innovation teams.  Several key factors weigh in to create a “dream team,” and the leader has to balance these tensions appropriately to assure the best outcome.  Over-reliance on content expertise, for example, can eliminate the power of diverse views and insights during the innovation process.