Innovation calls us to do the impossible: to build for a future we can’t yet see. The very notion of innovation is riddled with paradoxes. It asks us to embrace wildly different–even contradictory–ideas at once: creativity and pragmatism, foresight and hindsight, breakthrough visions and incremental change.
In this way, innovation is unlike all the normal things we do on an everyday basis. That’s why the conventional strategies we bring to organizational management are inadequate. Innovation requires its own unique set of skills. It’s not so much thinking outside of the box as it is redefining what that box is.
There are three defining characteristics that differentiate innovation from all other forms of value. The first is its time-based nature. Innovation happens in the future for which we have no data now. We can’t predict the future, but we can prepare for it. The other complication to innovation’s timing is the inevitable expiration date: innovation has a shelf life. It goes sour like milk. Think about all the gear you bought for your kids at the Apple store last Christmas. This year, it will all be outdated. An innovation doesn’t stay an innovation for very long.
The second key quality to innovation is positive deviance. What makes an innovation valuable is the amount of deviance it has from the standard or the norm. In all other situations, when we plan for something, we assume that there will be continuity between today and tomorrow. The opposite is true for innovation, where we seek out and depend on discontinuity. Just take a look at Tesla Motors. Everything about the company is deviant–the way its cars look, the way it sells its cars online without a showroom, the way it makes cars from stock parts you can get from any supplier. The only thing that’s not deviant about Tesla is the individual pieces of technology it uses, which is usually what we think of as the most innovative thing about a cutting-edge organization. So the company is deviant not only in its process but also in the very way it conceives of innovation.
The third element to consider about innovation is that is happens horizontally. Typically, organizations strive for alignment, working to make sure that all the measures, or key performance indicators, line up nicely and that all departments are on the same page. In innovation, things don’t work that way. That’s because innovation cuts across all the boundaries and disciplines of business practice. Sometimes there’s only one element of a product that’s innovative. It could be in the packaging, like it is for Proctor & Gamble. It could be in customer service, like it is for Singapore Airlines. It could be in the distribution process, like it is for Federal Express. The challenge is in bringing out a single innovative aspect of a project while maintaining the contributions from all other sectors.
For this reason, innovation resists alignment but requires synchronization. We don’t want straight lines–we just want everything to go together at the right time. This is not unlike an orchestra, where everyone is playing a different instrument but they’re all playing the same piece of music. Or a football team, where everyone is in a different position, but they all need to be coordinated.
How exactly do we accommodate for all these innovation paradoxes, the challenges that make innovation such a distinct–indeed, strange–way of thinking and creating? This is exactly what I’ll address in next week’s continuation of this three-part article: the concrete steps innovators must take in navigating the thorny, twisty path to the unknown.