There is a joke shared by statisticians, scrap dealers, and emergency medicine professionals about drivers. Despite the distribution curves of driving skill, the daily admissions to the emergency department, and the clear evidence to the contrary in the scrap business, the average driver strongly believes that they are far better drivers than average. Some truly abysmal drivers feel highly confident that they are, in fact, very good drivers.
So, too, does the average organization harbor images of themselves as highly innovative, while, by some accounts, fewer than 3% of them are. In truth, the other 97% of organizations range from pretty pedestrian to so terrible at innovation that it brings tears to one’s eyes. Being un-innovative is not really the problem, though, and unlike being a terrible driver, being horrible at innovation is only a problem if one has mismatched aspirations.
How do you tell if your organization is truly innovative, or if it is just a bad driver with poor self-awareness? There are several online surveys, but here are three questions taken from an instrument I developed for organizational learning and knowledge behaviors. Score your organization on a 1-5 scale, in which one is “Never” and five is “Always.”
Here is my informal rating scale:
Let’s discuss three reasons why innovation is bad for the 97%, and what they can aspire to instead.
Most innovations are harmful to the organism in which they occur. If a cell suddenly starts marching to the beat of its own drum, it is likely to be cancerous, not a nascent superpower. Some innovations bestow a little benefit, and may become a real breakthrough, but at least initially, they are almost always going to seem like a bad mistake. For example, sickle cell provides a little benefit against malaria at the cost of somewhat debilitating anemia. One the other hand, being able to walk upright has been a pretty good innovation for us, and co-opting the mitochondrion was a roaring success, but these took a while to bear fruit.
Most organizations simply aren’t geared up to do the hazardous job of increasing these “errors,” firewalling them from the institutional immune system, and carefully sifting out the dead-end or virulent innovations from ones that will eventually be incorporated into how they do business. No matter how much they thump their chests that they are “innovation leaders,” most organizations simply lack the optics to tell a cancer from an emergent differentiator, or an error from a good idea. And most do not have the Biosafety Level 4 maturity to handle innovation without blowing up the entire business.
Very few people are ready for the astounding level of waste involved in innovation. Most organizations will try something twice—maybe three times—before concluding it a bad idea, but most innovations take several hundred attempts to get a working model, let alone a commercial product. Edison claimed that he had 1,000 duds before his first bench-ready lightbulb.
While the media repeatedly trumpet the image of the lone genius whipping up an innovation after Sunday lunch, the truth is that it typically takes masses of people collaborating over extended periods, sometimes longer than the lifespan of the originators. New drugs often take 12 years from idea to market, and reportedly, only one in 5,000 potential drugs make the journey to become a product.
Very few organizations have the patience, resources, and vision to pull off more than the most trivial of innovations, due to the enormous waste and time involved.
A lot of the creative part of innovation is that freewheeling, brainstorming, walking in nature, playing nerf-ball stuff we see in the movies, but that is only a very tiny part of innovation. Once a clever idea pops up, it has to be guided through a very rugged and precise industrial process, to clean it up, remove the burs, refine it, combine it, and figure out how it would be implemented, tested, monitored, and scaled up to production levels.
The development of an idea into a process or product requires inordinate levels of discipline, process maturity, and laboratory-grade levels of conceptual cleanliness. Only those organizations that have repeatable and mature processes for handling the idea to innovation development lifecycle, will be able to do this well.
Does this mean that organizations should abandon innovation? No, but it does mean that if you are not one of those 3% who do regularly innovate, you need a different approach to innovation: copycatting. There is no shame in copying a good idea, and it takes great skill, determination, and situational awareness to do it well.
You need to develop highly effective and quality-controlled processes for copying what the innovative organizations have already brought to market, and to liberate your organization from the false-consciousness of trying to be an innovator. The effective copycat can often improve on the innovations that hit the market, can pick those that are showing evidence of success, and scale them to meet demand. Accepting the mantle of being a copycat is emancipatory, and your staff and patients will be far happier.
To be an effective copycat, you need to master some things, including:
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