Steve Jobs said innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. Michael Porter said innovation is the central issue in economic prosperity. Both ideas describe the importance of innovative thinking within your organization if you are to avoid mediocrity.
America’s greatness is a free market economy. At the heart of a free market economy is competition. Competition drives innovation and innovation is the DNA of the American Dream. Innovation is what defines the entrepreneur and it is the engine that creates value and drives success, success for both individuals and organizations. So why is it that innovation seems accidental in so many businesses and organizations?
When, like Ford, you have a better idea, you engage in innovation. It doesn’t mean you create something new that nobody has ever seen or heard about. For example, McDonald’s didn’t create the hamburger. Dick and Mac McDonald had a better idea and by changing the menu choices of traditional restaurants, they offered a limited menu allowing them to focus on an effective preparation process and the quality of their product. Add Ray Kroc to the mix with his ideas of standardization of the product and processes combined with the training of employees and you have a world that has eats billions of McDonald’s hamburgers every year. Innovative ideas can be simple ideas.
Innovative ideas, to be profitable, have to be accepted in the market place. This acceptance generally will be rewarded with high profit margins. Then the American Way kicks in. People learn how much money is being made by the company selling this new innovative product and the natural progression of a free market economy toward competition begins. The higher the profit margins the more intense competition.
Depending on the difficulty of copying the original concept and the difficulties of bringing a competitive version to market, prices eventually fall until margins are minimal and the supply of the once new product is plentiful. For the original company to move back toward high profit margins again, more innovation is required to create greater value for their customers.
New businesses start with an innovative idea that creates great value for their customers, then they become victims of their own success. Their business becomes profitable and they make a good living but they get too busy to continue to generate new ideas. The demands of their customers, the negotiations with vendors, and the difficulties of governmental compliance sap their energy and steal their day. There is no energy left and there is no time to think, to generate new ideas, to innovate. Business owners inadvertently become caretakers, not entrepreneurs. Soon their margins and sales growth fade and their enthusiasm fades.
What business owners need to understand that to achieve high profitability and maintain high levels of profitability through time, a business must “practice” innovation on a regular and sustained basis.
Time and energy aren’t the only obstacles to the practice of innovation. A business owner’s attitude can also be an issue. I own the book “Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principals,” written by Peter F. Drucker. It has been in my library at least 25 years and I read it periodically. This book is divided into three parts with the first part titled “The Practice of Innovation.”
The introduction to Part I states: “Innovation is the specific tool of entrepreneurs, the means by which they exploit changes as an opportunity for a different business or a different service. It is capable as being presented as a discipline, capable of being learned, capable of being practiced. Entrepreneurs need to search purposely for the sources of innovation, the changes and their symptoms that indicate opportunities for successful innovation. And they need to know and to apply the principles of successful innovation.”
After observing businesses for the last 34 years, I believe the lack of systemic innovation or the lack of systemic generation of new ideas to create value for their customers has cost most businesses lots of money. Many people still believe they aren’t creative and therefore cannot be innovative. That’s a myth. Everybody has the ability to be innovative. The real obstacles to systemic innovative thinking for most business people is a belief they are not creative and they lack time and energy. At the end of the day, these are self-management issues.
The practice of innovation should be a core strategy for any organization. However it may be harder for some organizations to implement than others. Mr. Drucker made an interesting observation in his book Management. In the chapter “Entrepreneurship in the Public Service Organization,” he wrote, “… public-service institutions find it far more difficult to innovate than does even the most bureaucratic company. The existing seems to be even more of an obstacle for them.”
In first sentence of the next paragraph Mr. Drucker wrote, “Most innovations in public-service institutions are imposed on them by outsiders or by catastrophe.” If Mr. Drucker is correct about public-service organizations, and I believe he is, what does this mean for the future of Fort Smith? Should we gather together in a prayer vigil asking God for a catastrophe?
Hmmm. Stay tuned.