The Ugly Truth about Innovation

Adapted from Dan Maycock  A lot of literature on disruption or innovation often resembles junk food: It tastes great, has very little substance, and soon after you regret spending...

Adapted from Dan Maycock 

A lot of literature on disruption or innovation often resembles junk food: It tastes great, has very little substance, and soon after you regret spending money on it because it didn’t really do anything to improve your disposition.

Of course there are exceptions, but few business books address what it really takes to be innovative and launch disruptive products. This is in part what inspired me to publish a book recently. After talking to hundreds of people at companies large and small, it struck me that so many businesses that are trying to be innovative are just doing it wrong.
What I found was that it takes considerable investment and a lot of repetition to get good at being disruptive. And most companies don’t have the appetite to keep trying to stay ahead of the pack. They instead fall into conformity and efficiency once they’ve found their meal ticket. However, there is good news, there are ways to fight against this inertia.

Resist too much structure.

To do something continually better, you can’t be innovative just once. The core of your business needs to involve a continual re-shuffling of the deck. A lack of structure is become the new normal. 

Agile methodology for example is built on the premise that programmers only need to operate in a two week cycle, vs a traditional waterfall based development cycle over 12-18 months because more companies are realizing that short stints leave open the possibility for change, and allow for adaptation which is a key component of Innovation. 

Choose your focus wisely.

If you’re actively trying not to concern yourself with too much structure, how do you focus? In truth, there is always a focus–but it’s not so heavily weighted around your products or services. Instead, you have to center your company on an idea or trend that never goes out of style.

You might look at Amazon and say it’s a technology company. If you ask Jeff Bezos though, he would say that Amazon’s focus is selling things and technology is just the means to scale. If you talk to an executive at Toyota, and ask if they’re a car company, they’d disagree and instead say they’re a transportation company.

To be truly disruptive, you have to think of your company as something bigger than the products or services you use. It has to be something, like connecting people or transportation, that won’t go out of style no matter how many years or technologies go by. The really ugly truth is that it goes against the majority of management best practices you’ll learn about in any good business school because of the significant risk it poses on any balance sheet.

Get good at crashing and burning.

Developing a disruptive company requires a lot of failure. You need to build that muscle to where you have a second nature reflex for burning everything down and growing something bigger, faster, and stronger. That’s not an easy skill, nor is it a cheap one to learn. It’s made more difficult by the fact that you will always be in a state of survival, worrying about what your competitors are coming up with, and fighting against time and change, and the desire to entrench yourself in a safe position.

Instead, a start-up must be super flexible as it continues to grow. How can you bend and flex into new areas while withstanding the types of economic shifts that put companies regularly out of business? It’s no easy task, which makes it the ugly truth most innovation books fail to recognize. However, it’s absolutely critical to staying ahead of the pack versus continually looking over your shoulder.

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