Innovation killers

Dr. Terry Cutler

Originally published: Business Review Weekly14 November 2001

Innovation is not for the faint hearted. It is not a recipe for popularity nor for an easy life of industry leisure (sipping chardonay under the reassuring umbrella of a golden parachute). Several recent experiences, and some new scars, make me think that while we all pay lip service to innovation or even just simply "doing things better", we pay too little attention to all the factors that make innovation and change difficult, and plain hard work.

It is sobering to recall that even as late, in the Western World, as the Renaissance, bold innovators, or simply people who questioned the status quo, ran the real risk of physical torture, death or banishment. Such habits persist in many areas of the world today. Today's corporate tactics are arguably more subtle, but can be equally effective.

Innovation becomes an especially hazardous undertaking in the troublesome area of business process improvement and organisational development, and particularly in the case of institutional reform. Habitual practice becomes established and unquestionable dogma. Ronald Coase, the Nobel Prize-winning micro-economist, says institutions are designed not to change quickly or readily. This works well in a relatively stable environment, but we run into problems in eras of more fundamental societal or economic change.

Process innovation, and the resistance to it, takes us into the realm of "grand strategy", and is probably why we keep reading masters from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, the great thinkers about the art of mobilising people and materials for sustainable outcomes.

Innovation, in all contexts, revolves around the concepts of novelty, risk and uncertainty. The values we typically associate with innovators are passion, curiosity and a tolerance for ambiguity, or the open question.

Roget's Thesaurus reminds us that the flip-side of innovation is conservation, revolving around the concepts of permanency, preservation and fixed reference points. The values we associate with conservatism are moral certainties, the successful inter-generational transfer of knowledge and values - corporate memory - and of nervousness about innovation lest overly energetic change agents throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Innovation works best when it develops in partnership with the forces for conservation, when there is a healthy dialectic that we would, in our management jargon, call something like the creation of learning organisations or the promotion of a life-long reinvention of careers and capabilities.

But the ideal of a creative, constructive tension is seldom realised in practice. Too often innovation and process change management degenerates into a conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Election campaigns and corporate power struggles reflect this problem. The creative artfulness of debate and dialogue becomes the poisonous propaganda of fixed positions.

I keep returning to the BBC's "Yes Minister" series for how to kill a innovative proposal or a "new idea". (I use the books from the series as a basic management textbook.) One episode provides a useful reminder about the standard armoury of the anti-innovation forces.

Sounds depressingly familiar? Monopolies and quasi-monopolies have mastered this art of anti-innovation. It is called the weapon of spreading "fear, uncertainty, and doubt", or the FUD factor.

We need to develop a corporate culture and a civic culture of good public policy, that promotes the creative discussion of possible futures, around the sharing of a belief in the value of doing things better. The innovator's credo is that it is possible to imagine something different and better. The innovative idea is what remains when all else is forgotten.