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February 2012


Confronting the "no” in Innovation

The Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence defines innovation as “making meaningful change to improve products, processes, or organizational effectiveness and creating new value for stakeholders.”

Innovation involves the adoption of an idea, process, technology, product, or business model that is either new or new to its proposed application. The outcome of innovation is a discontinuous or breakthrough change in results, products, or processes. Successful organizational innovation is a multistep process that involves development and knowledge sharing, a decision to implement, implementation, evaluation, and learning. Although innovation is often associated with technological innovation, it is applicable to all key organizational processes that would benefit from change, whether through breakthrough improvement or a change in approach or outputs. It could include fundamental changes in organizational structure or the business model to more effectively accomplish the organization’s work.

If innovation is this broad in concept, why is it so unusual or infrequent in practice? This question struck me recently, when two separate incidents crying for obvious innovations resulted in my disappointment with uninspired customer service. The first was an interaction with my bank. I had a certificate of deposit that was coming due on a day when I was going to be travelling. I called the bank the day before the maturity date and asked that the money be transferred to my checking account on the next day. They said they could do it if I called back the next day. I explained my situation and asked if they could note it and just follow through the next day. The answer was, “Unfortunately no, not doable.”

The second incident occurred in a bureaucratic setting. It involved a request for an exception to a policy, but one for which there was precedent. Several reasons were presented why this case would be challenging at the current time. Outside the office there was a sign, “Your link to innovative administrative solutions.”

I brooded about these occurrences and then rapidly generalized to opportunities for innovation that we all have. Why are innovations so hard to come by? Not the acts of great genius, but the other innovations that could build customer loyalty or create a strategic advantage in the marketplace, without a generational breakthrough. I wondered, Are people inspired by the “no” in innovation? Maybe we should change the word to innewvation?

Here are five patterns of behavior that lead me to conjecture that people are subconsciously inspired by the “no” in innovation:

  1. Policy. We have policies in our organizations that make it easy to justify the status quo or saying no to a new idea. It appears to be the right thing to rely on policy; that’s why policies were created. And generally sticking with current policy will be the safest and securest course. Furthermore, doing so generally requires less work than breaking with policy, no matter how good the idea.

  2. Tradition.  “We have always done it this way.” “It is the way we do things.” “It has served us well for many years.” “There must be a good reason why we have this tradition; it is rooted in our glorious history.” “The tradition has been a source of our sustainability.” “Why break tradition? It is risky; it could negatively impact my career.”

  3. Entrenched ideas or beliefs. We all have entrenched ideas and beliefs that come from our upbringing, our education, and our life’s experiences. These are areas where we do not think about stepping out of the familiar. These ideas or beliefs are part of what we are; they are ingrained. They are part of our basic self. The thought of changing them just does not occur to us.

  4. Fear of intelligent risk. I define intelligent risk as an opportunity for which the potential gain outweighs the harm or loss that could impact the organization’s sustainability if the opportunity is not explored. Nevertheless, intelligent or not, it is a risk. And we have become increasingly risk-averse. Leading organizations encourage risk taking and reward both success and failure. They also have processes for evaluating risk and making intelligent decisions.

  5. Asking the wrong questions. Sometimes we ask the familiar or immediate question, rather than asking the more global or innovation-generating question. For example, we may ask about the next-generation photographic film, rather than asking about next-generation image recording. We may ask about faster letter delivery, rather than faster message delivery. While the answer to the more global question may not be as easy, it is the one that can lead to the true breakthroughs—the breakthroughs that lead to generational changes in products or processes.

How often does each of us fall into one of these patterns? How might we combat these triggers for a lack of innewvation? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Whenever you are about to practice one of the above enablers of innovation, take a step back and think if there might be a better innewvative answer or approach instead.

  2. When faced with a challenge, first ask yourself if there is a bigger challenge of which this is a subset and whether you should be addressing the bigger, more global challenge.

  3. Try to train yourself to think “outside the box” as your first line of thought—not necessarily for everything, but certainly for things that are important.

  4. Finally, “new and improved” is sometimes just different, but not better. So ask yourself, Is this just different? If the answer is yes, ask yourself, What would truly be better? The answer might be the next big innewvation!

That’s it for this column. If you want to get some ideas about possible innewvations for your organization, learn from the best—our national role models, Baldrige Award recipients. Attend the upcoming Baldrige Quest for Excellence® conference in April. Happy innewvating!



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Dr. Harry Hertz photo

Dr. Harry Hertz, Director
Baldrige Performance Excellence Program

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