High-priced business strategy consultant Gary Hamel has written an excellent article about innovation in the latest issue of Fast Company. Innovation Now looks at how so many corporate execs – those self-proclaimed champions of innovative thinking – bunker down, get “back-to-basics”, and remove any of the bold experimental thinking that would actually lift their organizations out of the economic doldrums. It’s a strongly worded argument against conservative thinking in conservative times.
In too many companies, real business innovation is an exception. Innovation lives in a ghetto, safely corralled in R&D or new-product development, where it can’t infect the rest of the organization. And yet we know that to lock up innovation in a corner of the company is to limit that group’s potential to create the future. The most important business issue of our time is finding a way to build companies where innovation is both radical and systemic.
The first step toward making innovation systemic is to realize that many organizations are systemically hostile to innovation. It’s not that they’re filled with reactionary, backward-looking people ( okay, there may be a few exceptions ). The real reason that they’re hostile is that they’re captive to a set of beliefs that make organizations unwittingly antagonistic toward innovation.
One belief that these companies have is that variety is bad. In most companies, a variance from a production standard, quality standard, or budget standard will almost always get you into hot water. Big companies want things to go according to plan. These days, you hear a lot of C-level executives talk about the virtues of alignment. Of course, we need alignment: We need to know what our strategy is and how we’re measuring it and how we deliver value. But perfect alignment is death. Variety is the key to evolution. Mutation and sexual recombination allow a species to thrive in an unpredictable world. So it goes with innovation, which requires experimentation, trial and error, doing new things, and breaking old rules. An unhealthy adherence to conformity and alignment will drive out innovation — and innovative people.