Doing Two Things at Once: Managing Innovation

The Challenge

We all want innovation but where do we find the time? The every-day presses in on us from all sides. As we try to manage this process it becomes obvious we have a challenge. I’m not sure manage is the correct term to use in respect of innovation. We have to develop two attitudes, two responses, two cultures; one we can apply to the 9 to 5 job and the other to nurturing innovation in our organisations.


Somewhere in your organisation this duality comes to rest on a single desk. On one hand process, behaviour, task management is optimised, automated and measured against goals. This activity is expected to demonstrate efficiency and contribute to return-on-investment. On the other hand, one is expected to nurture exploration, novelty, risk-taking, new technology with fuzzy use-cases. Can you court failure and motivate your staff to make career choices on this basis? Even more striking, one encourages disruptive novelty that may destroy or replace your current value proposition, department, or current business model. So, can you drive efficiency on one hand and encourage potential failure with the other? In effect, the challenge is to manage two opposing cultures simultaneously. The culture necessary for innovation looks like the one which can be subjugated in a crisis, as one strives to survive the week, rather than model the future.

As always, one realises that this is not new in itself, but has been recorded many times in the passing centuries, as innovation led development. Machiavelli covers this ground, rather cynically, in The Prince (1513).

“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

Today’s Certainties are Tomorrow’s Mistakes

History abounds with once successful technology companies in specific market segments; valves in electronics, PC hardware manufacturing, word processing software, operating systems, are four examples that enjoyed total dominance in their hey-day, only to founder in the changing tides, unable to reorient their business structures and practices in time to meet new market forces. If you are not ready to reinvent yourself, surf the changing tides of technology, and even cannibalise your current business to build tomorrow’s business, you are already drifting downstream into the seas of commodity and obsolescence.

The tides of change are as powerful as ever in today’s markets. The mobile/notepad business is a prime example. Market leadership monetary expectations are measured in billions of dollars, but in months in terms of longevity. Obscurity awaits the less agile.

Find the time, divide your management style, explore the novel, swim upstream and spare a moment to tell the rest of us how it is going.

April 10, 2011

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