Plotting a Course to Innovation

In 2010 Joshua Brewer called Innovation, “The Next Great Buzzword“. Indeed to Google it is to land over 405 million links. What truly is innovation and how do we recognize it? More, how do we generate it?

Following my curiosity I chased down some of those 405 million links to learn that of the 32 Innovations that Will Change Your Tomorrow the New York Times predicts most will have to do with seemingly mundane items including clothes, coffee and underwear. I was hoping for George Jetson’s flying car, but I guess I’ll need to settle for using my tee shirt to recharge my iPod while on cross country bike rides.

What got me thinking about this topic was a talk I attended recently by Michael Rogers author of the Practical Futurist column. Michael described progress in organizations with the analogy to sailing. He said that when an organization wishes to get from where they are to some new context, they don’t go in a straight line. It is more like a sailboat in a headwind. The task is to tack, going back and forth making marginal progress toward the goal on each pass.

I find this analogy more approachable than books including the The Innovator’s Dilemma. I can see how investments not fully depreciated, an established frame of reference, cultural and other influences both internal and from outside the organizations exert atmospheric pressure that impedes progress. Not the least of these includes customers and their needs. There’s an old joke in the communications industry that goes, “How could the all mighty create everything we know in just seven short days?” … “No embedded base,” goes the punch line. Customers need to be ready at the time your ship comes in.

Like sailing, bringing successful new innovations to the market are both a science and an art. It often takes an almost perfect combination of the right wind, favorable tides and a bit of luck that few squalls form in your path. The helmsman needs to know when and the crew must execute the perfect jibe to maintain course.

For those crews involved in the processes used by organizations to deliver innovations certain periods when forward progress is difficult can feel as if on a ship in the doldrums. In the way the sailor’s mind wanders while she waits for a breeze to enliven the sails, so too a product manager can wish for the fantastic.

Would there be a streamlined sloop capable of crashing through the bureaucratic surf to run the blockades and deliver our cargo of new innovations to market. Instead, the sailor’s skill is in executing the efficient gathering of requirements, validating of assumptions, preparing compelling business cases, enrolling supporters, dissuading opposition, cajoling management and adeptly negotiating vagaries of the corporate sea. Expert execution of the processes is the true test.

Unquestionably, we understand the need for such regiment. Nothing comes free. Every organization must carry ballast to maintain stability in the choices for the equitable allocation of resources in the best interests of their customers and investors. Companies successful in crossing today’s often unfriendly seas depend upon the skill with which the course is executed. The results must be products that appeal to large markets, which are priced appropriately to attract buyers and can be delivered and serviced with quality. For all of our sophistication today, this still remains a significant challenge even in the most elite of organizations.

Michael Rogers might say that it is the company that combines the best designed boat of processes and culture within which innovative people can operate. It then takes a skilled crew who master the currents and land successfully ashore.

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About Vic Levinson
Telecommunications and IT professional with over 20 years experience in Business Telecommunications. Specializing in voice over IP (VoIP) for business: hosted VoIP, business VoIP phone systems, SIP providers, carriers, T1's - the works. Founded Prime Telecommunications in 1993 and providing business communications solutions. Cloud Applications- everything from hosted network security, hosted Disaster Recovery, hosted printer management, data centers and colocation solutions for businesses.

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