Making innovation work

It was  ‘The innovator’s dilemma’ that changed the pace of innovation forever. It was the first book that suggested that the consequence of true innovation is the destruction of your existing business model. “Demand”  uses the now-famous example of the Kindle, where Jeff Bezos told a team to get out of the building and go and destroy Amazon as we know it (and he gave them a few Sony E-readers as well). That book asks why some innovations make it, and a lot don’t.

The innovation book

The “Innovation book” by Max McKeon is full of tools and might help. Some suggestions from the book:

  • Plug yourself into novelty.
  • Store and play with new ideas. Stick things on noticeboards. Write ideas in notebooks. Tear out photos. Highlight sentences in books. Draw thoughts on napkins and in margins. Draw connections between concepts, people and places. Join ideas to other ideas. Create idea lucky dips and grab bags with randomly acquired magazines, toys, tools, objects and subjects.
  • Move between stimulation and isolation. Your brain needs injections of the revolutionary and mind-blowing. You need the provocation of problems. Ideas spilling over. Concepts bursting out. Noise. Music. Art. Experience. Your over-stimulated brain must then find respite. Your unconscious must reorder and remake. Let your mind index and connect.
  • Find new communities and people. Explore other scenes.
  • Go to new places. Wander through your workplace. Start conversations. Create online photo galleries. Browse academic websites. Read the magazines about other professions or hobbies. Travel. Experience.”

Where does your company fit?

The culture of your organisation shapes the way people create, think and solve problems. Are you

  • Idea toxic; creativity is not welcome or rewarded. There is indifference, apathy or fear about new ideas and change.
  • Idea wasteful; new ideas and insights are treated casually and mismanaged. Creativity is seen as a threat to productivity.
  • Idea friendly;  creativity is welcomed since new ideas are valued. New ideas may get introduced and reviewed by hierarchy.
  • Idea hungry; people seek new ideas. They make the world better with radical improvement beyond existing limits.”


There are plenty of examples where companies lost their way…

  • 3M was famous for giving innovators money and then just leaving them alone to create cool new stuff. Just two output measures were really advertised – the percentage of revenues from new products and their number of patents. The 3M culture was about the inputs to create fabulous new ideas including their famous 15% slack time (available to work on projects that scientists choose) and spending 5% of their revenue on R&D.
  • When CEO James McNerney arrived, (2001-2005) he brought along enough GE inspired efficiency metrics to clog up creative veins and arteries. Too much measurement increased short-term profits but reduced long-term growth. The next two CEOs – both 3M old-timers – reversed the changes. With creative independence restored, numbers of new products soared (25% in 2008, 34% in 2014 with a goal to reach 40% in the next few years). All measurement and no joy, make creativity a chore.
  • A Kodak engineer, asked by his supervisor, invented the first digital camera. They combined a new semi-conductor with a television and data cassette to take a 0.01-megapixel photo. It took Kodak 16 years to get a single dollar from the invention: a one-off sale of a spy camera after a request from the US government. Kodak ignored the new idea because it didn’t play nicely with its existing cash ideas.
  • Google used to be famous for giving its engineers 20% of their time to work on any project that they wanted. They didn’t have to justify the use of this paid time. And they could choose to pool their 20% with other people’s to develop innovations outside of the corporate plan. Google-time helped the company launch new experimental products and services.

Innovation-led disruption is different

You may find a new way of making money, often described as business-model innovation. You sell in a different way, like Amazon versus Borders. You could disrupt markets with product innovation. You package up existing ideas in a different way, think of American Airlines versus Southwest Airlines or Virgin. Or you find a new technology, like 3D printing in the home versus mass production in factories. There may be ripples or revolutions.


Snapchat. At first, the idea was proposed for a Stanford university assignment, and mocked by the class. They focused on making it as easy, and cool, as possible to just share time-limited photos. They knew photos were a (valuable) thing. They made temporary photos a new (valuable) thing. Within one year, there were more than a billion photos shared. Within two years, Snapchat was valued at $3 billion. They surfed the wave.

Most radical innovation is shockingly slow, then shockingly fast 

When a new way of doing something replaces the old way, this is disruption. People don’t use printed road maps anymore, sales have declined by 50% over the past five years because GPS navigation in the car or on your phone is faster and easier. It seems incredibly big-bang until you remember that the satellites that provide GPS signals were first conceived of in 1973 and not operational until 1995.

First and best can get in the way of second and better

In the late 1970s, France was one of the first countries to have a nationwide information network with a console in every home. The Minitel, a kind of small desktop computer, could access online shopping, chat and information more than a decade before the rest of the world, but, because it was so good, slowed French involvement in the World Wide Web.

The toolkit

Mckeown  closes with an extensive Innovators Toolkit, a sample of which I have included here:

March’s exploration vs. exploitation

Successful adaptation is often about balancing exploration and exploitation. If you spend all your time using what you know, you are less likely to learn what you don’t know. Yet if you spend all your time exploring what you don’t know, you are less likely to grab the opportunities you find.

Chesbrough’s open innovation

No innovation is an island. Nor can innovators be successful if isolated. Yet it is tempting to hide innovation efforts from the world, to avoid our best ideas being copied. If you do all the work yourself, you may be able to keep your idea secret. But doing all the work yourself is usually more expensive than being open to the ideas of others. Closed innovation can be so slow it fails.

Henderson and Clark’s four types of innovation

Some innovation is radical. Big bang ideas that are different in big impact ways. Some innovation is incremental. Small advances over previous ideas or improvements that don’t really change the way you did things previously. But radical changes in one area can lead to little impact in another. And what seems like an incremental innovation can have unexpectedly radical results in the real world.

Repenning and Sterman’s capability trap

You’re trying to get some work done. You want good results. You may be facing bad results. And usually, you want better results. Improving the future may require sacrifices in the present while short-term results may sacrifice much better performance in the future. By understanding the tension between improving and performing, you can choose more wisely the future you want.

Johnson and Johnson’s constructive controversy cycle

No idea is ever perfect. And when people pretend that an idea is perfect or finished, others are less likely to try and improve it. This leaves the idea untested and stagnant. It also prevents engagement with the idea that will develop the innovative thinking of everyone working with the idea. It is far more powerful to create constructive controversy as a way of engaging and opening minds. We like the closing line of Johnson and Johnsons constructive controversy cycle”.

Opening minds

“It is far more powerful to create constructive controversy as a way of engaging and opening minds.” It is one of the disruptive forces that drive us and any organisation that we work with.


sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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