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  • The Patterns of Successful Innovation
  • Innovation is often thought to be the answer to a company's challenges. It doesn't matter whether the company aspires to grow its business, or is just seeking ways to survive in a dismal economy. Innovation is often viewed as a conduit to business success.

    As companies give greater priority to innovation, they often focus upon creativity. They work at out-of-the-box thinking and coming up with innovative ideas. And, they may try implementing some of those new ideas and, in some cases, even rewarding failure.

    Unfortunately, many of those novel ideas will not work. So, it becomes apparent that successful innovation requires more than merely finding and trying out creative new ideas. New ideas are important, but successful innovation also requires evaluating which ideas are likely to succeed and being selective about which ones to adopt. This evaluation and selection aspect of innovation is as important, if not more so, than thinking up creative new ideas, especially for major innovations that greatly impact the business.

    Yet, many people associate innovation primarily with its creative side. Innovation is associated with things like creativity, idea generation, out-of-the-box thinking, rule breaking, and doing things differently. Even though the vast majority of new ideas will not work out and the newness aspect of innovation is not enough for success, the creative side of innovation often gets emphasized. Dreaming up and trying lots of new ideas is encouraged, and failure may be justified as learning. But, failing too much can get prohibitively expensive. So, for success, companies must also focus heavily upon the aspect of innovation that entails selecting ideas with strong potential.

    Patterns Show that Strengths-Based Innovation Succeeds

    Patterns can be a valuable guide for evaluating innovation success potential. For over 20 years, I have been studying the success patterns associated with the moves that companies make. I find that the patterns of successful innovation parallel the success patterns that apply to business strategy. Successful strategy does not result from going off in wildly new directions. Instead, successful strategy builds upon a company's strengths and resists the ever so common temptation to veer off into something new, but ill-fitting.

    The same applies to innovation. By its very nature, however, innovation is new and different, whether new to the world or as applied in a company or industry. But, for newness to succeed, it must fit a company's strengths. Thus, successful innovation is strengths-based innovation.

    For example, Apple is a company that achieved spectacular success with innovation. Apple, with its "think different" image, innovates and comes up with market disrupting products. The way Apple does things may be dramatically different from what others do. Yet, Apple's successful innovations are generally not markedly different from what fits Apple. Apple's innovations suit the consumer markets that Apple understands, as well as the education and creative markets that Apple focuses upon. Apple's iPhone introduced icon-based technology to phones, building upon Apple's years earlier introduction of icon based computers. So, yes, Apple is different, but it is different in ways that are compatible with its own strengths. And, that's a characteristic of successful innovation.

    This contrasts with Enron, which before its collapse was renowned for its innovation. Back then, Enron was rated the number one company for innovation. But, Enron's innovation generally was not strengths-based, strategic innovation. Instead, Enron's innovation entailed always trying new things and constantly going off in new and very different directions. This is not a characteristic of successful innovation. It is a characteristic of focusing too much upon the new idea aspect of innovation, without enough emphasis upon identifying which ones fit well and could succeed.

    Successful innovation needs to be strategic. It follows many of the success patterns discussed in our Winning Moves® reports and newsletters. For example, it is strengths-based, evolutionary (see my special report "Evolution, Not Revolution: How to Innovate Without Destroying Your Business"), fits the corporate culture, avoids excessively high risks, and blends experience with fresh perspective. Successful innovation may involve new ideas from the outside or from unrelated areas. But, just like successful strategy, those innovations must be a good fit. And, like strategy, innovation success is affected by factors such as competition and market demand. Since the patterns of successful innovation and successful strategy are so intertwined, the two should be integrated. For success, innovation must be consistent with a company's strategy.

    Go for the Adjacent Possible

    The book, Where Good Ideas Come From: the Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson, discusses the "adjacent possible", a term used by scientist Stuart Kauffman to describe changes that can actually happen. The adjacent possible is a good construct for thinking about which innovations or business strategies can succeed. Adjacent possible is a bit like the term "adjacencies" used by Zook to describe how related areas are where success is most likely when a business expands beyond its core. But, not everything that appears to be adjacent is an adjacent possible. Innovations and strategies that follow the patterns of success will generally be adjacent possibles. That's why it's so important to thoroughly assess factors like strengths, fit, etc. when selecting innovations to adopt.

    Johnson's book uses the example of Charles Babbage, who designed something akin to a modern computer back in the late 1880s. It did not take off because it was not an adjacent possible. Back then, there was not enough adjacent technical infrastructure (such as electric power) for computers to gain widespread use. I find that the same applies to business innovation and to strategy. According to my research, if a company's strengths do not provide adequate infrastructure for an adjacent possible, success will not happen.

    In conclusion, companies need to be strategic about innovation. Yes, there is value in brainstorming, coming up with all sorts of possibilities, and experimenting, preferably on a small scale. But, paying attention to the success potential of ideas is equally or more important, especially for major innovations that greatly affect the business.

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