thoughts on innovation

A collection of my thoughts on digital innovation

Innovation Management: A Paradigm for Change or Simply a Buzzword?

This blog was originally published in Sept. 2014.

Ever since the world has become aware of the importance of innovation, almost every company has created a strategic plan toward becoming more innovative or toward jumpstarting its innovation journey. While the amount of buzz around this topic is commendable, it is not difficult to see that innovation is more of a lip service and buzzword for a TV commercial, than it is a crucial strategic goal of many organizations. In other words, the low level of adoption of innovation as a strategic goal and as part of a management program depicts a lack of clear understanding of what innovation is and the consequences of not putting resources toward it.

Has this always been the case? If we take a historical look at the adoption of management methodologies, we can get an inkling of what is currently happening with the adoption of innovation management.

In the middle of the last century, most management methodologies, processes and tools were focused on enhancing productivity (with Ford Motors taking the lead in the 1920s). However, by the 1980s, it was apparent that Quality Management was the next big thing. This later took the form of TQM (Total Quality Management) and Six Sigma, and no doubt companies invested massively in efforts driving quality management in the early 1990s.

Studying the evolution and adoption of these management methodologies, one can safely assume that a good definition of adoption is when corporations actually put their money where their mouth is. In other words, when they invest in the execution of whatever strategy they have developed—whether it is increased productivity or quality.

A good way to see this adoption lifecycle will be to actually subject it to the theory made popular by Everett Rogers in his book “Diffusion of Innovation”. While some may argue that management concepts can hardly be subjected to the diffusion model due to the wide application of this model to products or general ideas within a social system, I think it may be useful in understanding the response of typical companies today to important concepts in management—most especially, innovation management.

The Diffusion of Innovation theory explains that there are five categories of adopters of an idea or a product: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. We can apply this to the concept and practice of innovation management as a management methodology and principle.

Innovators: These are the companies to first experiment with innovation management. They were the first to adopt a scientific and repeatable successful discipline to innovation, rather than leave it to the haphazard and ad-hoc “hope-for-ideas” method. They took the risk.

Early adopters: These are the companies that are and will be fast imitators of the innovators. They will act fast enough before the “rush” happens; they will embrace change and plan for it.

Early majority: Every idea or product experiences an “epidemic of agreement” in its lifecycle where a vast majority of stakeholders or players begin to see and simultaneously adopt what will then be seen as “best-practices”. These companies will wait for evidence of the viability of innovation management before they act.

Late majority: Some companies (mostly successful ones) still won’t get it. They will watch the early majority rush into the discipline of innovation, but their past success and fat revenues will blind them from the realities of possible disruption.

Laggards: Bound by tradition and keen on being hooked to old practices, large and established corporations will lag behind in the adoption of innovation management. The consequence of this cannot be over-emphasized—the future is simply bleak for these companies.

Where are you in the adoption cycle?

Where are you in the adoption cycle as far as innovation management is concerned? This is the big question that every CEO or manager of any organization, small or large, should ask himself or herself today.

The danger when it comes to innovation is that the consequences of delay in adoption can be as grave as the total extinction of a company. In innovation, it seems that the winners will be the innovators, early adopters or early majority that embrace the idea that innovation is a scientific process that can actually be managed.

“Adoption,” of course, means investment of time, effort (human resources), and money. This is because the nature of innovation management itself is to win the battle of who acts quickest and most flexibly in creating the best value to meet current or future needs. It is by nature meant to drive home the need for urgency and it is by nature going to polarize those who do not act as fast.

How will you classify your company? As an innovator, an early adopter, early majority—or as the portion that will have to act when it is too late?

Gbemi Akande