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Do we need to look at Innovation in a different way?

Innovation is key: It provides a competitive advantage and it is the differentiating factor between those who thrive and those who fail. With Innovation we associate creativity, revolutionary, new, game changing, unique or just special.

Is it one of those mysteries of our time? Is it that rare bird, that holy grail that is only accessible for a few gifted who then found social networks, develop ingenious search engine algorithms, modify human DNA to produce ground-breaking medicines or introduce the smartphone?

Innovation is a market. There is a plethora books and theories. Numerous Consulting firms on the market sell the “path to innovation”. Yet, innovation remains rare. If it is so important and we know how to do it, why is not everybody innovating? Maybe Innovation is not of this earth and just a lucky combination of circumstances?

It´s time to demystify Innovation. Let´s take a deeper look at some very popular examples:

What do you think Mark Zuckerberg´s day looks like? How did Steve Jobs come up with the iPhone? How did the Google founders establish their search engine?

Truth is. They are all hard workers. Mark Zuckerberg had a good idea about enabling people to meet and connect online. He wasn´t the only one with that idea at the time but he came up with the best solution and probably the best branding. He was extremely successful in providing the best social network experience and keeping functionality up with users needs and wishes. That´s hard work with a lot of heavy lifting, which requires attention to detail and outstanding persistence over a long(er) period over time.

Google? There were search engines before Google. The algorithm programmed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin is complex and brilliant and changed the way we searched the web. Only their great thinking work would be nothing of value without high performing Server farms which ensure fast feedback and extreme computer power to map the net. Even more – Google built a huge organization to run this simplistic white website.

The story of developing the iPhone is told. We all know that Apple was initially working on the iPad and transferred all knowledge and existing technologies to the then prioritized iPhone project. The iphone is again the combination of a great idea with a tremendous amount of work. Steve Jobs was known as a fanatic. Days before the presentation he discovered that the yellow color of the Google Maps Icon didn´t match Google´s yellow. He called Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) and they had it figured out by specialists in a couple of hours. Incredible attention to detail – and that´s just one tiny example of the hard work that was put into the iPhone.

We could go on and on. The pattern is the same. A great idea strikes you in the middle of the night but bringing it to life can be a lifetime of hard work. Sharing a good idea might entertain an evening party but only it´s implementation is the path to innovation. After all it seems, the divine spark is not enough!

From the examples above there are already three elements:

1) Hard Work

2) Attention to Detail

3) Persistence

But there is more.

Jim Collins is talking about the Threshold of Innovation in his latest book. Based on his research he found out, that at a certain point, adding more innovation doesn´t add more (financial) value. It seems, the amount of innovation can be managed.

In one of his earlier books he compares Intel and AMD. While AMD seem to be the innovative guys, going far beyond that threshold and ending up almost bankrupt every time, Intel just does enough to be able to call it “the next generation of processors” and delivers as promised.

These examples add two more aspects to our list

4) Planning

5) Execution

But there is still more to Innovation.

We are always seduced by the idea of creating something groundbreaking. Only that this is misleading. In the brief example above, Intel already taught us a good lesson. Innovation is probably about developing “something new”, but it does not have to be revolutionary. Very often, we perceive innovation when people re-think existing products: the hand blender with removable blending arm; sliced bread; cars with cup holders; your smartphone’s flash as a torch and many many more. These are all additions to existing solution that we appreciate.

Nevertheless, somebody also had the guts to change something which we are used to – and it is important to know that the Human Species has a schizophrenic attitude when it comes to change. But that´s a different story.

So Innovation is not about inventing something like the light bulb (hey – here is our rare bird), it is also

6) Evolutionary

7) Daring

What are the consequences for companies?

Innovation has such a high focus, because the decision making process of the huge, complex multinational organizations are built on the lowest common denominator. It´s hard to push an idea through these systems. Most ideas are either seen as too small (“Innovation has to be big”) or as too big (“That´s not possible”) or as “not of your concern”.

One commonality of my first three examples is the existence of a founder providing autocratic decisions. Steve Jobs wasn´t a nice person at all, but he made the difference.

This element didn´t make it on my list because hiring or nominating a founder is no option. The solution can be seen at many successful companies: Innovation needs a process and it needs to be protected from the administration and bureaucracy. It never happens in the day to day.

With that, here is the last element of my list.

8) special attention.


Innovation is one of the keys to future success for any business. It needs to be approached pragmatically with avoiding the tendency to look for revolution rather than evolution. Building innovation into a company´s DNA means to provide defined freedom for employees to develop and present their ideas, an efficient process to understand the potential market value and a focused creation of the product or service. Last but not least, without persistence and protection, great ideas never make it through cooperate governance structures.

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