Enough Innovation, Go Evolve
[This piece was inspired by & co-written with my BBF (big brain friend) Keith Knapp - @kknapp.]
Picture waves, currents, and boats. Some waves/currents are big and some boats are big; commensurately, some waves/currents are small and some boats are also small. The big boats navigate the small waves & minor currents relatively easy – and stay the course – while the smaller boats may feel the water as choppy and are forced to make changes in direction more often. When the water isn't too choppy, and the undercurrents are minimal or known, the larger boats can usually get from Point A to Point B more efficiently, while the smaller boats may have to expend more energy as they travel with the changing currents. Conversely, as major undercurrents begin to change the larger boats have a more difficult time tracking those changes until those changes are physically impacting their ability to sail smoothly; whereas the smaller boats, which by design are closer to the undercurrents, can feel or “sense” the major changes in direction sooner and can make adjustments sooner. Therefore, travel from Point A to Point B in the most efficient manner is highly dependent on the size of the vessel and the environment in which it operates.
Now the big question: Is the big ship considered innovative when it starts to use a new tool that allows it to track the changes in the undercurrents sooner? Consider this before answering:
The water in which the large ship sails didn’t change, it is still water.
The ship itself didn’t physically change; it is simply using a different, perhaps new, tool.
The not-too-subtle reframing of the question then becomes: Did the ship truly innovate with the use of the new tool or simply adjust/evolve to the macro-change in the currents? Industry says, more often than not, the metaphorical ship (corporation) innovated. Our argument is that companies - big and small - spend an enormous of energy, capital, and training on innovation when in fact they should be shifting their thinking and resources to evolution. Why evolution?
More achievable. Dreams / big ideas without action are simply that, dreams.
More efficient. Executed ideas build onto themselves and generate more ideas.
Innovation thought leaders frequently counter with arguments proposing that evolutionary ideas may prohibit truly breakthrough or “innovative” ideas. However, we postulate that steady, incremental, iterative ideation yields far more results - and enables additional “innovation” - at a far greater rate than the proverbial home run. James Dyson famously made 5,127 prototypes1 before arriving at the final design of the world-renowned bag-less vacuum cleaner. Mark Zuckerberg, arguably, evolved from CourseMatch to Facemash to Facebook1, learning something from each successive evolution. Dyson and Zuckerberg each captured the critical insight first (crappy bagged vacuums suck, or don’t, and desire for social connectedness, respectively) and then worked the evolutions...hard.
The bottom line is that we feel that the term innovation is being overused; whether it is during strategy sessions or within goal documents, the fact is that innovation, real innovation is very, very hard. Organizations should instead be shifting the thinking away from lofty innovation goals and spend more energy toward delivering incremental, achievable - a.k.a. evolutionary - changes in their business models. To be clear we’re not advocating that organizations should stop pursuing BHAGs; we’re saying that huge, game-changing ideas should be pursued but not at the expense of quickly adopting market-driven evolutions.
While our proposal may seem like semantics - given that sometimes the “best” innovation is often described in terms of being linear and iterative - changing the dialogue from “go innovate” to “go evolve”, while subtle, can represent a very powerful mindshift.
1. “Think like Zuck” by E.Walter
Other thought nuggets:
By the time the Titanic realized what was going on, it was too late.
Would the tools that small boat fisherman were using for eons helped the Titanic?
Was the Titanic doomed from the outset due to size and “not invented here” hubris? What could leadership have done differently? Besides listen more.
Large companies typically resort to spending more money (on the engine usually) to break through the turbulence of the waters (market); is that a good strategy? What is?
Can you credit an organization or brand with innovation if they / it eliminate(s) or reduce unnecessary clutter? Or is that simplification?