When it comes to innovation, the number one question that CEOs tend to ask (both me and other people who advise on innovation) is a variation of “How can I innovate faster?”. It’s obvious they want innovation, and they want it yesterday! This, the need for speed, is something that we today assume is at the very heart of innovation, without question.
We’ve heard about failing fast, about quick and agile processes, about rapid disruption and slow dinosaurs, and we’ve come to assume that innovation is all about speed and going even faster. This, however, is a myth. What I’ve learnt from working with some of the greatest innovators in the world is that leading on innovation time is about something more than just being fast and furious.
In fact I’ve learnt that real leaders stand apart by their flexible logics of innovation time, being able to handle many different rhythms and diverse tempos in the search for new ways of creating value.
Innovation is tricky. Some innovation is all about being quick and agile. It’s about getting a new thing out on the market before the competition has even come to think of it, and about running rapid tests and experiments. This, however, isn’t true about all innovations. Take Chester Carlson, for instance.
He invented the photocopier, a machine that still to this day is a staple in offices all over the world. His original patent for this technology was registered in 1942, and some 17 years later this was the core technology behind the Xerox 914, sometimes called “the most successful single product of all time.” Just like the internet, it was an instant success, just decades in the making. In between these extremes, one measured in months and the other in decades, we have many, many times and tempos of innovation.
What does this mean for the CEO who wants a more innovative corporation?
The need to think in a more diverse way about what is meant by “innovation time”. Even though we live in a world defined by tumultuous change and rapid development, this doesn’t mean that an innovative organization needs to live on permanent double time. Instead, a real innovation leader is in tune with the fact that one needs many a project, running at many a tempo, to capture the full scope and value of innovation. If you pressure each project to create results as fast as humanly possible, you will generate some results, not just the optimal ones. Similarly, if you don’t impart a sense of urgency, you might support some innovation projects, yet lose out on many others.
The art of innovation management is in this fashion not unlike that of the music producer. A great album, mixtape, or concert is built up of a range of engagements. Some very fast, others slow and pensive. What good producers understand is that you need both, and in-betweens as well, to create a fully formed whole. For the innovation manager, this means that you need to build up a portfolio of projects both fast and slow, immediate and considered, futuristic and in the moment.
What makes this difficult is that management still struggles with tempo and different time-scapes. Some companies are great at doing the quick two-step, yet fail when it comes to longevity (I’m looking at you, Twitter). Others are great at seeing the long-term, yet may fail at creating a working business model in the here and now (are you listening, Kiva?). What a corporation needs to do, then, is to constantly navigate between the Scylla of right now and the Charybdis of what might be. But how does one do this? By building a portfolio of many kinds of innovation times.
Quick innovation projects, even when they’re against the existing corporate logic, are important. No sensible person would ever claim the opposite. Any company wanting to survive in today’s fast-moving pace will need to ensure that it is constantly running quick experiments, agile tests, speedy and lean trials of potential new innovations. Without sufficient resources for such experimentation, the corporation simply will not have enough ideas trialed for when it needs them. Such quick spurts are great for testing out a new technology or experimenting with new versions of existing offerings. Here, failure is a learning opportunity, bets are kept small, and the tempo high.
That said, sometimes to innovate faster you have to take things slower. This is where “medium speed innovation” comes into play. In parallel with quick and dirty experiments, innovative organizations will run a series of development projects that delve a little deeper into ideas, and that allow for enough iterations and tests to ensure viable, solid innovations. This gives your employees a greater sense of stability, and also allows for a deeper commitment with an innovation project. As speed is no longer everything, it becomes possible to think a little more profoundly about all that the innovation might be able to be, rather than just rush towards a prototype. Here, care is taken and ideas are nurtured from tender sprouts to full bloom.
Slow innovation might seem like an oxymoron to some. However, just like slow food can be a wonderful antidote to fast food, slow innovation can be very powerful in an age that worships speed. Consider IBM, who has conducted research into AI since the late 1950s. During the many decades since they’ve amassed an amazing understanding of machine learning, one that is coming to fruition now. What’s your decades-long bet? Do you dare make one? Here, innovation is about exploring technologies that are just beginning to show their potential, and allowing for basic research to play out.
There are of course many other times and tempos to explore, and projects can shift from one to the other. For a CEO, the important thing to remember is that diversity improves organizations and their innovations both.
Written by: Alf Rehn.
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