(3/4) Innovation is a Discipline!

Zuloaga ImatgeArtículos, Blog English, Jay RaoLeave a Comment

Happy August!

This blog is the third in a series of snippets from my recent book in Spanish (that translates as): “Innovation 2.0: Why do we forget about the people when we talk about innovation? A practical way to create a culture of innovation.”

In my last blog, I talked about the misuse and overuse of this colossal beast called “innovation.” This problem is quite systemic; among employees, managers, executives, academics, consultants and magazines. This universal abuse is leading to dismal outcomes for firms, wasted money and efforts, and disillusionment with innovation in general among executives and employees.

One of the major reasons for all this pain is the wide spread illiteracy about “what is innovation?” Executives, consultants and academics are trying to define it. This is a futile endeavor. The reason for this is quite straight-forward and in my book I make the following case:

 “Innovation is a Discipline.” Period.

In this blog I will re-visit this thesis that I have been making now for several years now (please see my blog from May 2009). This blog was quite exhaustive and that in fact became the basis for the book. I will recap the main points here.

Innovation is not a tool. Innovation is not invention. Innovation is not a panacea. Innovation is a discipline; a body of knowledge or a field of study. It is an academic discipline like marketing, leadership, psychology or sociology. However, unlike the other established disciplines in management (strategy, marketing, finance etc.), innovation is a new and emerging discipline. Viewed through the lens of a discipline, one can approach the management of innovation very differently.

Firstly, all academic disciplines have their own lingua franca – language, concepts, tools, principles, methodologies and frameworks.

Secondly, like all academic disciplines – physics, sociology, linguistics, accounting – innovation can be taught, it can be learned, it can be practiced and over time firms can master innovation.

Thirdly, all disciplines evolve. It is instructive to understand how management disciplines evolve. For instance, 30 years ago, quality was the new discipline that swept through management. The discipline started in the 60s in Japan as quality control. The focus there was to weed out of poor quality products. Then came quality assurance and designing in quality to eliminate errors rather than cull errors. This then evolved into TQM in the 1980s in the U.S. that included the entire enterprise as well as the supply chain. Six Sigma, the final version of the quality discipline had a few distinctive features that its predecessors lacked—(1) it integrated with existing strategy and initiatives of the firm, (2) it was driven and championed by top leaders in the firm, (3) it created a cadre of experts—master black-belts—in the concepts and tools of quality, (4) it trained an entire community—black and green belts—to become knowledgeable about its strategic implications, and (5) this community had the ability to use the principles of quality in specific situations by way of focused projects and apply proven change management skills. This practical, comprehensive approach helped the critical principles and practice of quality percolated into a majority of the firms world-wide.

Unfortunately, our understanding of the discipline of innovation is where our understanding of the discipline of quality was 20 years ago. Yet, we can learn several lessons from how other disciplines have evolved and how they have been approached and managed within enterprises:

  1. To master a discipline is a choice. Not all firms are great at marketing. Not all firms choose to be great at operational excellence or for that matter at consistently developing great leaders. Hence, to excel at innovation is also a choice. Nobody is forcing firms to be great at innovation; especially not the competitors.
  2. Firms cannot excel at any discipline unless there is a burning desire to do so from the leadership team. If there is the desire then the executives will spend time and money towards building capabilities within the enterprise to master that discipline.
  3. Not everyone in the firm is a finance expert. Not everyone in the firm is a HR expert. Hence, not everyone in the firm will want to be an innovation expert. Yet, like how enterprises created six-sigma masters and experts internally, firms need to create a similar cadre of innovation experts. Very few firms have developed these internal experts in innovation. We need to remember that having a great R&D group does not automatically result in innovation.
  4. While most inventions come from individuals or small groups of 2 or 3 people, a vast majority of innovations are a result of a community effort. Hence broad knowledge about the principles, frameworks, concepts and tools enterprise wide is imperative. Today, in most enterprises we expect all employees to have some rudimentary knowledge or skill in the concepts and tools of all major management disciplines – finance, marketing, operations etc. Innovation is no different. Unfortunately, this does not exist in most firms today.
  5. It takes years to master any discipline. You master a discipline through discipline (rigor, patience and perseverance). Fortunately, the journey to master any discipline is the same: Knowledge à Practice à Discipline. There are no short cuts and no magic bullets. Yet, in reality I regularly encounter executives that expect employees to be magically innovative without any formal training and/or practice.
  6. Mastering any discipline is like mastering a language. Most of us are quite happy to acquire conversational skills in a second language and rarely try to gain expertise. Similarly, most firms are quick to learn a few of the foundational skills of innovation. But it is not sufficient to set them apart in the competitive landscape. However, mastery and expertise in innovation is still a rarity among enterprises.

Finally, Innovation is a social science like marketing, leadership and psychology. While accounting, finance, and IT are formal sciences that are governed by logic and rules. Physical or life sciences obey the laws of nature. However, in social sciences there are no rules or laws. Social sciences have general principles, frameworks, tools, concepts etc. Unfortunately, thus far, several executives and firms have been approaching innovation as though it is a formal science like quality and/or physical science like biology or chemistry. More specifically, in several industries, innovation is narrowly defined as R&D and invention. This directly leads these firms to take very structured approaches towards innovation that eschews all the creative, artistic and humanistic elements that are central to innovation in general. Firms are still using the wrong tools, wrong techniques and wrong resources to manage innovation and that is leading to poor results and frustration.

In the next blog, I will talk about how an enterprise can start the journey to develop innovation capabilities systematically.



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