Imitation is Not Innovation: Why the Difference is Critical to Survival

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“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Innovation is a top concern for today’s executives. CEOs know that innovation drives success over the long term. It’s something every company wants, but few know how to achieve it, let alone sustain it. This problem is compounded by the fact that few know how to accurately or adequately define innovation. When asked, many managers and executives offer “I know it when I see it” type responses. Yet, as most business executives know, innovation is a key to survival in the modern world.

So, the question arises: How do we define innovation and how do we then go about innovating in our own company? Everyone seems to have an opinion and their own definition of innovation. While we can point to a myriad of examples of the companies we consider to be innovative or not innovative, it doesn’t help us actually define the term. So, let’s approach it by looking at examples of companies many agree are “innovative” and see if we can distill some sense of definition from those examples.

One issue with this approach crops up almost immediately. In a world where operational excellence is required to survive, we have examples, but the disagreement continues about how we should innovate. As an example, both Fast Company and Business Week magazines ranked the top ten most innovative companies in 2010, and only three companies were on both lists.(Apple, Amazon and Google). It should come as no surprise, then, that fully two thirds of the companies on the list in 2009 were not there in 2010.

Some organizations and the media think that the way to innovate is to copy what “innovative” companies do. The trouble with that methodology is that the most successful innovators build a culture over many years and develop innovative services and products, then implement them flawlessly. Therefore, innovation in this sense is not immediately imitable or implementable. It is also remarkably difficult to stay innovative for long periods of time, because every day presents a new challenge for your industry and your business.

Another argument regards innovation driven by customer feedback with respect to their pain points. Some of the world’s leading visionaries, however, opposed that point of view, ignoring customer input and instead created innovations based on their vision for a market-changing product or service. Here we can picture inventors and innovators such as Florine Mark, Alex Bell, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Madame Curie, the Wright brothers, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs.

In looking at market-changing innovators, Henry Ford is one of the first names that pops up in my mind. Ford had many tries at success before his methods of mass production changed the world. He constantly tried new things and was not afraid to fail or adapt his plans to move in new directions. He and Henry M. Leland were partners in the Henry Ford Motor Car Company and disagreed about which direction they should go – toward mass production or more luxurious coaches. Ford decided he would sell the company to Leland and went off to form “The Ford Motor Car Company” with the proceeds of that sale. Leland quickly changed the name of his company to “The Cadillac Motor Car Company,” and after much success, ultimately sold it to General Motors. He then partnered again with Henry Ford to form the Lincoln brand automobile.

What is truly interesting about Ford is his perspective on failure. Here, two quotes are illustrative:

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

“Success is 99% failure.”

Ford’s attitude toward failure is considered to be a hallmark of true innovation. In essence, he is telling us that innovation requires – mandates, perhaps – risk-taking. An old adage comes to mind: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Thomas Edison is well noted for his inventions and innovations and the many failures that preceded his success. He had four rules for business innovation, which were clearly ahead of their time:

  1. Think outside the box.
  2. Be entrepreneurial—take risks.
  3. Fail your way to success.
  4. Success demands that you improve your products.

He was a true entrepreneur – a businessman with the vision and ability to predict new markets for his work and products. His views on failure are very similar to those Ford held:

“Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

The views of these two innovators are profound lessons for us today. First, we can see just how fine a line exists between failure and success. It is for this very reason many companies today shy away from truly innovative ideas and cultures. While they may give voice to the idea that they seek innovation in their company and their employees, little is done to actually embed it in the culture or follow up on the ideas generated by innovative practices. In this climate, innovation and innovators wither on the vine.

Deciding how to use these examples and models of innovations is a challenge we all face in business, as workers, as managers, and as executives. What is the takeaway? They can be inspirational, but more importantly, they help us reveal and assess our assumptions, values, beliefs, and the ways we perceive our world.

It is easy to look for innovative companies and compare your organization to theirs, and then to try and imitate that very same success. But it will be hard to understand what they do in their own environment and apply that as a workable solution or practice in yours. Companies that have a long string of successful innovations are the outliers and emulating them is much more difficult than simply making a serving of instant pudding. Copying these companies is much like trying to copy the individual innovator. Studies of both the organization and the individual can provide some insight, but there is no “one size fits all” formula for innovation success.

Another challenge we face is in understanding what we can take from the lessons of these pioneers of innovation. Thinking with an operational excellence mindset means we don’t just try to duplicate or copy the “thing,” but we try to understand exactly what part of the innovation made the difference between success and failure, and how we can apply that to our own situation. Instead of using a cookie cutter, operational excellence demands we adapt the recipe to our own ingredients and our own kitchen tools.

W. Edwards Deming had a lot to say about innovation too, and as a proponent of excellence through a constancy of purpose, he said:

“It is thus not sufficient to improve processes. There must be constant improvement of design of product and service, along with introduction of new products and service and new technology. All this is management’s responsibility.”

He went on to describe innovation as the “phase 0” of a system model and frequently used the metaphor of the makers of carburetors who improved their products over the years, but failed to innovate, and whose products thus were replaced by fuel injectors. This has much similarity to buggy whip makers, replaced by – you guessed it – carburetors.

Let’s think about that – all of these types of companies once had a very successful business model but failed to innovate throughout the entire organization. Now, where can they be found? As Deming was once reported to have said, survival is optional, not mandatory.

So what are the alternatives? This is not just a rhetorical question, because so many people and companies still succumb to the phenomena of not innovating from their current customer and market environment to a new environment with new customers. We all must seek to move where the customers are and try to anticipate where they will want to go next. That task should never end if we want to sustain our business system and develop it for a future based on new, successful innovations that build on past innovations.

This is a natural system and it has natural consequences, much like life on the savannahs and plains; we must adapt our organizations or they will die. It is “survival of the fittest” at a new level of thinking, and natural selection weeds out the organizations that do not innovate and follow through with exceptional execution.

With our world full of opinions and markets, operational excellence requires certainty to survive, and we suggest you study the advice from all of these expert innovators. We must not fear innovation, but embrace it; we must understand it, learn from it, and be willing to test our theories about our business and adapt with changing conditions. With knowledge about systems and variation, understanding the psychology of people in markets and our organizations, the last requirement of innovation is to never give up.


Additional Reading

How to Achieve Operational Excellence in the Private Equity Industry
Building an Innovation Based Organization


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