Everyone sure loves to talk about innovation these days. In fact, it's one of the most frequently discussed terms in today's business environment And yet, in my day job at Firebrand Group I find that there are too many truths regarding innovation that no one likes to discuss.
Here are some of the brutal truths about innovation that no one really wants to admit:
#1: Not All Inventions are Innovations.
"Innovation is the creation and delivery of new value," says Harry West, CEO of global design and strategy firm Frog. "The truth is, unless it's delivering value, it's not innovation. It's an interesting idea, it may even be an invention, but the question is, is it delivering value?"
As for value to whom: it could be to a consumer, a customer, an employee, a citizen...it could be anyone, depending on the context, but it's got to make somebody's life better in a meaningful way so they directly or indirectly benefit. It's not necessarily about doing something cool (although that helps); it's about doing something new and useful.
#2: Innovation Isn't a Sprint; It's a Marathon.
Usually when you're hard at work trying to start a company, you're putting all your energy into delighting that one specific customer persona, and if your idea winds up having market relevance, you need to have to have the ability to sustain it. "I see a lot of people let off the gas too early on their product innovation and building and investing in a product," says Heather Brunner, CEO of WP Engine, which provides managed WordPress hosting for mission critical sites around the world.
At WP Engine, they were so busy thinking about their current product and current customer base, they didn't pay enough mind to what was coming next, which led to some short-term setbacks. WP Engine was able to recover, but it's a common situation: once companies have a certain level of success, there is a tendency to take their eye off the innovation ball.
#3: Technical Debt Can Creep Up On You.
"As you have success, and as you have scale, you will need to go back and fine tune and update things in your original core product," says WP Engine's Brunner. That's something that often gets undervalued and under invested in, because it's not the new sexy thing, but it's key to keeping your customers happy and your product relevant.
Don't think technical debt is a concept that is limited to tech firms; the same principles apply to companies in many other industries.
#4: "Selling it In" is a Huge Part of the Process.
Creative people might believe in innovation more than their clients or managers, believes Winston Binch, Chief Digital Officer at Deutsch North America. Clients are concerned about day-to-day sales. While they might know that innovation is important, it's hard to find the time for it, to make this innovation work viable. You have to have the right approach and know how to sell it.
#5: You've Got to Do It For Cheap...
To do something truly innovative, you have to spend millions, right? Not exactly; that million-dollar check might only get signed after some innovation has been proven on the cheap. "You've got to do it for cheap," agrees Binch of Deutsch. "You've got to be able to do it for less." Binch himself has always operated with the mentality to make a dollar operate as if it was $1 million.
#6: ..And Yet, Money Actually Matters.
While starting out cheap is a major positive, you also have to have access to money if you want things to scale. Coca-Cola Chief Innovation Officer Alan Boehme has been in Silicon Valley for 25 years, and has learned that money matters if you want to scale, particularly in tech. Silicon Valley and Boston have lots of risk capital. There's $48 billion a year in venture money - in places like New York, Boston, Tel Aviv, and Beijing. Don't kid yourself into believing that you don't need money if your particular business plan demands it.
#7: True Innovation is Hard to Scale.
It's easy to do something and have it work once. Maybe a second time. "But when you've done it the third time, you have a repeatable process, and then be able to see it scale, then you're succeeding," says Coca-Cola's Boehme. That's why Boehme got behind The Bridge, Coca-Cola's unique commercialization program designed to help innovative startups scale. The program includes a chance to pilot within Coca-Cola, and the opportunity to license the startup's product to Coca-Cola or the program's other sponsors, such as Turner Broadcasting. Being forced to think about how to potentially serve such a large client forces these innovators to immediately think about scale.
#8: Innovators Don't Always Fit In.
People who are natural innovators are not at big companies. "It's like saying you really want to be a pastry chef, but you work as an accountant," says Qasar Younis, Y Combinator's Chief Operating Officer. "It doesn't really make sense." Younis acknowledges that big companies can innovate, but the individual who is starting something brand new, both out of temperament and economic drive, might be more of a lone wolf suited for starting a brand new company. The skills that are suited for a large company - sensitivity to organization, understanding how you navigate yourself through promotions, how to present well - often belong to a different kind of individual. In fact, that's why Younis believes a lot of founders are terrible presenters; their value has been in driving the initial product forward.
Simply put, being a stellar employee at an enterprise and being a good innovator do not often overlap. Sadly, the best innovators who just want to innovate nonstop often get squeezed out of companies for not having the right internal skills.
#9: Innovation Without Storytelling is Worthless.
The last thing that pulls everything together? You have to be able to tell a story. You have to be able to acquire the talent necessary needed in order to grow your business. You have to be able to attract customers via stories and partners via stories and so on. To Boehme, this is the #1 way in which startups fail. To address his gap, Coca-Cola supports the startups in its aforementioned Bridge program by teaching all of the soft skills such as how to tell stories and how to connect with consumers.