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Cartoon: innovation marketing manager demoted to marketing manager

Innovation Is Past Its Sell By Date

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Business innovation is past it's sell by date. It is as out of fashion as re-engineering, matrix management and flogging misbehaving employees. Yes, of course some businesses will continue to innovate. All will continue to improve things here and there. But the corporate innovation initiative is going out of style faster than the CEO's Ferrari can race down the Autobahn. That's right, business innovation has been a fad and, like all fads, it is on its way out to be replaced by the next fad (corporate wellness programmes by my reckoning − so, if you are an innovation consultant, I recommend you learn how lead mindfulness workshops ASAP, that's where the money will be).

There are a number of reasons why business innovation is on the way out, but the main one is that it simply has not worked very well. Middle managers have been made middle innovation managers, creativity facilitators have run loads of brainstorms to little avail and idea management software has been installed only to become as busy as an abandoned village on a rainy night. Innovation consultants have invaded companies, done their mischief and left their invoices − rather than lasting innovation practices − as souvenirs. 

Companies Will Still Innovate, But...

Of course this does not mean that companies will cease to innovate − that would lead to stagnation. Innovation will still continue in three ways.

Firstly, a handful of companies have long been innovators and they will continue to do so. But even now, they do not boast of innovation. Instead they release a steady stream of exciting new products and services and technologies and call it doing business as usual.

Secondly, bright sparks in Silicon Valley and elsewhere will still have outlandish ideas which they turn into new businesses that change the way people do something basic, like connect with friends or hail a taxi. As with the long term innovators, these upstarts will not call what they do "innovation". They will call it: "getting stinking rich". However, over time, many of these start-ups will grow, become more bureaucratic and find themselves in the third group.

This third group includes most companies. Members of this group do not actually innovate as such. Rather they make little improvements here and there. In addition, when a company in the first or second group has success with an innovative new product, companies in the third group make similar products which are a bit less sexy and a bit less expensive. The touchscreen smartphone is a good example. Once Apple demonstrated the ability these devices have to turn users into content sucking zombies, other phone manufacturers quickly followed suit with their own smartphones. 

It is this third group that became obsessed with innovation. They would design a smartphone with a new feature and call it "innovation". They lumbered their managers with the task of innovation, on top of existing responsibilities. They stuck the word "innovation" onto job titles left, right and centre. They invested in idea management software, which was great. Sort of. Before then, when an employee had an idea, she had to tell it to her manager who would thank her and proceed to ignore the idea because he knew it would never be approved by his manager and, anyway, he was way too busy to deal with silly ideas. With the advent of idea management software, the inspired employee could submit her idea online and then have her idea ignored by her manager who still knows it would never be approved higher up and who is even busier now, having to check ideas on the software in addition to his already overwhelming schedule.

The bottom-line result of innovation for this third group has, for the most part, been nothing but more work for overworked employees who are increasingly showing signs of dropping dead from stress rather than magically turning their companies into innovation stars. This is probably why wellness is the coming business trend. No one really wants those managers to die, at least not before the next round of lay-offs.

Innovation Consultants Are Not Innovating Either

Mind you, it is not just the big companies that are to blame. In my experience, most innovation consultants are every bit as uninnovative as their clients. Consider the consultant whose PowerPointless presentation includes a slide stating that "The most dangerous phrase in the English language is, 'that's the way we've always done it.'" and then proceeds to run a brainstorm precisely following the rules laid down by Alex Osborn 60 years ago because, well, "that's the way we've always done it."

More sophisticated innovation consultants invade companies with more sophisticated slides that include colourful graphs, strange new words and complex processes whose implementation ensures lots and lots of billable hours (for the consultant, of course) and ensures that ideas jump through ever more hoops before being ignored. After all, why let managers ignore ideas immediately when you can build complex systems for ignoring ideas?

As a Result

As a result, the third group of companies, the group who had embraced the innovation trend, is now losing its appetite for innovation. They've realised that business as usual, without calling everything "innovative"  is just fine and dandy. And it is. Instead of innovating, they can focus on slowly improving products and processes and copying the successful products of true innovators.

So, innovation will continue, but the word itself will be used considerably less. Freshening up a product to make it look up to date will no longer be called, "innovation". Instead, it will be called "improving the product". Job titles will lose the word "innovation" and senior managers will stop going to innovation conferences and start going to wellness conferences.

Meanwhile, a handful of innovation consultants will continue to find work, either because they are very good at helping companies innovate, or because they are very good at selling themselves. The rest will become increasingly desperate for work unless they can innovate their own businesses. For them, I have a suggestion: "Try following the advice you've been dishing out to clients and see how well it helps you to innovate."


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium