Why creativity alone does not make you successful in innovation

Innovation is only partially about creativity; it’s perhaps more about weeding out less valuable initiatives and driving the better ones forward relentlessly.

 

The successful innovator is like a master carrot grower: he weeds out the smaller carrots to leave space and water for the larger ones.

The successful innovator is like a master carrot grower: he weeds out the smaller carrots to leave space and water for the larger ones.

In search of innovation excellence, companies often believe that their principal need is to embrace creativity, allowing them to come up with hundreds of great ideas from all over the place, inside and outside of their organisations. The general idea is that this will keep the company nimble, will allow it to outsmart others, and in general will allow it to outcompete less creative competitors. These beliefs often are at least partially rooted in the idea that fast growing start-ups (the ones that become unicorns) are rich in creativity but probably not so great in ‘boring’ things like project management and service delivery.

In reality, we at Bax & Company see innovation as a much more down-to-earth process.

From our experience of over 25 years in creating tangible business value from smart ideas, we have found that the most successful innovators are not so much like lonely Leonardo da Vinci, and quite a bit more like a pack of wolves that relentlessly pursue their next meal. If a certain approach doesn’t produce results within reasonable time, they switch tactics, but they do not abandon easily their pursuits, seeing things through even when the going gets tough. It took Nestlé 20 years to turn Nespresso into a viable business. The world’s first consumer digital camera (Sony’s MAVICA, 1981) was launched 22 years before digital photography would finally overtake analog camera sales. It took Apple a couple of decades to finally make their ideas reach markets large enough to sustain their appetite for being different. Similarly in the electric vehicle battlefield, it is quite likely that the ultimate winners will be the persistent ones, not the above-average creative ones.

The iconic companies mentioned above did not become innovation leaders by being very creative; they got their innovation success by being very structured, very serious and very professional about their innovation ambitions, viewing them as the only thing that may keep them from corporate oblivion 10 years after their initial peak performance.

Our advice to senior-level decision makers struggling with innovation: Consider it a long play, a difficult road to competitiveness, that will require stamina, highly structured decision-making, advanced risk management and perhaps even some smart financing. Just walking around your organisation with your ears truly open will probably harvest more ideas than you can invest resources in to achieve substantial business impact. It turns out that companies need to master the skill of killing less attractive ideas quickly and as painlessly as possible, allowing the best ideas to receive most resources, similarly to a gardener weeding out most of the small plants in order to end up with just a few actual good size carrots. The smaller carrots weren’t bad weeds; they were just a bit less likely to make it big, and the mere act of getting rid of 80% of them allows the garden to prosper and yield results.

Viewing the innovation champion as a master gardener may sound silly, but we believe many successful innovators will recognise the similarities instantly. They are not focused on a single carrot; they are also not worried about getting rid of one carrot too many at the beginning of the season. They’re more worried about having sufficient resources (soil, water, fertiliser) and balancing that with the amount of carrots their plot of land can support towards fully grown juicy carrots. They measure their success not so much by the biggest carrot they ever grew; they measure it by consistent good yields year after year.

 

What does Bax & Company have to offer in this area?

We’ve recently started to support an insurance company on how they can get better at innovation. The initial perception at senior management level was that not enough innovative ideas made it into their business reality, due to lack of an “innovative culture”.

A quick and structured diagnosis of their innovation capabilities using proprietary Bax & Company methods combined with peer reviewed / public domain methods concluded that actually their team got plenty of good ideas, but what happened afterwards was not so clear. Moreover, we found that the strategic guidance offered to those invited to come up with innovations was not clearly linked to measurable and quantified innovation objectives.

Resources required to turn ideas into implemented business change were not assigned in a quantitative way. In short, innovation was simply not planned, strategized or managed as a core process of the company, while it was perhaps the most important process to ensure that this company maintained competitiveness and profitability for the next 3-5 years.

We’re now ranking the highest priority interventions required to turn this company into an innovation leader. Creativity is somewhere on the list, but it’s by no means in the top five. Things like clear innovation objectives, clear innovation processes, milestones, selection criteria, budgets and strategic alignment are more crucial areas to develop first.

If you are curious to know what Bax & Company could do in terms of diagnosing your innovation capabilities and limitations, then please drop our office manager Encarni Torres a message here. She will make sure to direct you to one of our experts.

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