Innovation Saturation

I recently attended the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in San Francisco. I was struck by the juxtaposition of “innovations” at the event, which just happened to coincide with a huge debate taking place mostly online on the heels of Jill Lepore’s now infamous New Yorker article on disruptive innovation. I wrote this article just after the event.

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In 2012, the Wall Street Journal found that company reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission used some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times, a 64% increase over five years prior. In 2013, Innovation Enterprise launched its inaugural Chief Innovation Officer Summit, a conference that this year alone will go on to launch four times in four cities. These are signs that innovation has gone mainstream and when that happens, the inevitable outcry of misappropriation ensues. In just the last two weeks, the New Yorker featured a scathing piece on disruptive innovation that even elicited a sharp response from the typically docile Clayton Christensen.

The number of arguments over “what is innovation” are rivaled in quantity only by the number of arguments of “what isn’t innovation.” In these exchanges, it’s perhaps most interesting seeing how the principles of innovation– change, creativity, openness— are being ignored by its strongest proponents as they attempt to define and police the term via rigidity, standards, and exclusivity. We at Finch15 are currently using “the introduction of the relevant new” as our working definition for innovation. We happen to apply it to lateral innovation via brand assets, but we’ve always considered what we do and how we define things as perpetually changing. Thus we rarely stop to argue over philosophy, but are always conscious of its impact.

Last week while so much of the innovation debate was taking place online, we just happened to be at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in San Francisco. We were given the opportunity to listen to how big companies (with big brands) think about their innovation efforts. The din of the innovation bloguments and tweet storms were a perfect backdrop for such a conference.

In the case studies presented at the conference, innovation tended to manifest in two forms: via access to unique talent and via calculated attempts to shift company culture. Bluntly, some efforts sounded hollow or bolted on. Others pleasantly surprised us. Through it all, we maintained an open mind about what innovation is, staying true to what got us into the practice in the first place.

1. Access unique talent

So many companies epitomize the definition of “insanity” (often falsely attributed to Einstein): doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So when a company actually dares to try something new, it’s often an indication that they’re taking innovation seriously. After all, “old” has the benefit of inertia. One way of achieving something new is through new talent. Although there were those that spoke of fostering collaboration and innovative thinking among existing employees, many companies looked to the talent at startups as their key to success– even if that talent will never work directly for their company.

As a result, numerous companies have extended themselves to urban hubs and created their own incubators, accelerators, and labs that offer collaboration opportunities with startups (with some capital to sweeten the deal). WhileUnilever, Lowe’s and General Motors presented about such efforts, McDonald’s joined the long list of companies by announcing its own incubator effort online. These companies how have access to a new talent pool to solve problems and provide fresh perspectives.

Those that haven’t yet opened a stand-alone unit were accessing local start-up talent in their own cities via an event-driven approach that includes hackathons and other immersions for employees who would otherwise remain unexposed. We left particularly impressed by Carie Davis of Coca-Cola who seems to have genuinely impacted the culture at her company via her Startup Weekends. +

2. Shift the corporate culture

Time and again, innovation leaders discussed efforts to change the culture at their companies. Leading change inevitably strikes a tension between the desire to be shielded from the daily processes and the desire to create momentum that impacts the entire company. After all, does succeeding in a vacuum matter? This tension isn’t new (one could argue it’s at the heart of The Innovator’s Dilemma). Yet, there isn’t a clear solution for people in innovation roles at companies.

Nonetheless, there is an insight to be gleaned from so many innovation leaders having their jobs tied to cultural change: It may be the best indicator of how the rest of the C-suite defines success. Ultimately a large group of companies determined that changing the culture is inherent to innovation. Many of the innovation leaders we heard speak even framed their jobs as one that’s future-proofing their organizations in an increasingly chaotic environment.

Buzz(word) Off

The conference left us feeling cautiously optimistic about the role of innovation at big companies, even while the word itself continues its slide toward thebuzzword bingo square. It’s incredible to hear wildly successful companies see the value of “new” and go so far as to empower people– be it startups or internal employees– to serve as the peas below their corporate mattresses. It was especially refreshing to see so many finally realizing the value of their companies’ respective brands, which is generally the most under-utilized asset in innovation efforts. Companies decide what they want to get out of innovation efforts; their motivations and goals will vary. In other words, “new” and “relevant” are contextual. They aren’t universal or definitive. A company has a right to set that context, regardless of what others may think about it (and yes, of course we all have opinions).

If big companies are doing something new and getting the results they want, shouldn’t that be enough to call it “innovation”?

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