On Point: Hurry up and think!

By-the-book innovation is a pretty silly idea.

By Tom Weir

The reigning concept in business thinking today seems to be innovation, and there is probably enough reading material on the topic to keep anyone over 40 occupied until retirement. From all the hoopla, you’d think innovation was just discovered last year and can now be mastered by almost anyone willing to dive headfirst into the endless stream of consultant-generated programs that explain how to do it step by step.

Wonder what Pythagoras would think of that idea? Or Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Sam Walton, Bill Gates and a host of others? Regardless, it’s a big deal these days and attention must be paid.

Innovation can be a wonderful thing when it provides a better way to meet some human need, whether urgent or frivolous. But when it becomes an end in itself, it may be counterproductive. Companies that encourage and nurture innovation may find employees coming up with valuable ways to improve the business. Those that mandate innovation are more likely to have legions of workers who worry about losing their jobs if they can’t come up with a big idea, and who let that insecurity distract them from their primary mission.

Big ideas won’t do much for a grocery retailer if the shelves aren’t being stocked, stores aren’t being cleaned, checkout takes too long and customers are finding other places to shop.

And most innovation doesn’t involve big ideas anyway. It involves big insights: what everyday products or processes that we stopped thinking about years ago can we change in ways that better serve us and our customers? While ideas from outside the company can sometimes be helpful, what’s most important is a capacity for self-examination, something that is in short supply in many enterprises.

As a case in point, think back more than 10 years when a huge innovative concept in the supermarket business was Home Meal Replacement, later known as Meal Solutions. Many grocers jumped in with both feet because…well, because their competitors were doing it. Copying is not the same as innovating, a point brought home by the large number of retailers that gave up on the idea after a less than successful run.

Some did succeed, however, because they didn’t view their program as an item to be checked off on a to-do list, but as a business within the company that, in exchange for constant attention and maintenance, provided a worthwhile return on investment. The toughest thing about innovation may be that it requires a process mentality, a willingness to keep working on the same thing day after day, year after year in order to realize its full potential.

Most of us have project mentalities—we want to check it off and move on to the next thing—which are better suited to the culture of short attention span and immediate gratification that we live in than to the arduous execution of long-range plans. Those who seek to be innovators will need a change of mindset.

Supermarket customers are as diverse as the population, but most of them want the same basics: good selection, fair prices and speedy checkout. Innovation is what lets you provide these things better, faster and cheaper. It’s not an item on the corporate to-do list, it’s a long-term commitment to running your business more intelligently.

Tom Weir can be reached at tom@taweir.cnc.net.

This entry was posted in 2010 09 Article Archives, Columns. Bookmark the permalink.