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12 paradoxes of innovation

By John M. Bremen | March 16, 2023

Should you focus on incremental improvement or moonshots? Answers to basic innovation questions are surprisingly nuanced.
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Effective leaders have discovered that successful innovation is often characterized by paradox, and they address the following 12 factors through focus and action:

  1. Innovative organizations have strong innovation machines but recognize that some of the best ideas come from outside the machine. Corporate innovation groups are often highlighted as hallmarks of successful growth-oriented organizations. However, groups that act solely as control functions rather than enabling ones inadvertently work against themselves as they miss ideas that could yield growth.

    While some degree of control is essential for discipline and effectiveness, innovation groups that focus on enabling others generate more and better ideas as they support and elevate the best ones regardless of where they come from.

  2. Big, disruptive ideas are alluring, but small, incremental ideas often pay the bills. Innovation legends are built around moonshots – transformational ideas that change industries and lives. The automobile, the telephone, the polio vaccine, high-speed rail, the internet, smart phones, 3-D printers, self-driving cars, COVID-19 vaccines and chatbots all have been labeled moonshots. However, most of the corporate innovations that have driven trillions of dollars of growth are incremental ideas that build on existing products and services. Both play a vital role in innovation.
  3. Small, incremental ideas often pay the bills, but big, disruptive ideas may be necessary to secure an organization’s place in the long term. Organizations that focus solely on incremental innovation may miss broader industry shifts that ultimately disrupt their business models. Frequently cited examples of industry giants that did not change quickly enough include Sears Roebuck & Company, Kodak, Blockbuster and Compaq as well as products such as the Palm Pilot, the BlackBerry and the fax machine.
  4. Siloes can be anathema to innovative thinking, but are often necessary for depth and execution. Organizations need departments, hierarchy and structure to execute ideas, but they can limit innovation by reducing collaboration and leading to insufficient solutions that require broader thinking.

    Effective leaders successfully balance breadth and depth for meaningful innovation outcomes.

  5. Process creates discipline, but also can suffocate good ideas. Effective process also is essential for innovation. However, when process becomes too unwieldy or overbearing, employees are less likely to bring forth ideas, and ideas brought forth can be crushed by the process itself.
  6. Psychological safety breeds better cultivation of ideas, but innovation is measured by results. Even in highly results-driven enterprises, effective leaders create psychological safety for innovators by encouraging them to ask questions, be honest, take risks and not fear failure. They build empathetic connections with their teams by sharing their own experiences and explaining how they addressed challenges. This leads to healthier environments where challenges and questions are identified and addressed more quickly.
  7. Communication around innovation is key internally, but confidentiality is necessary to keep ideas from external competitors. Effective leaders know collaboration and information sharing are essential to innovation, but also take steps to guard against secrets being shared outside the organization.
  8. Failing fast and learning fast reduce wasted time, energy and money, but artifacts allow for future reconstitution and reuse. Effective leaders shift the concept of “failing fast” to a mindset of learning fast. According to WTW’s Katie Plemmons, learning fast is the backbone of innovation, building on past learnings to create successful new solutions. For example, Richard Dyson had over 5,000 prototypes for his vacuum cleaner before succeeding.
  9. Timing of ideas is essential, but an idea that fails one year can succeed in another under different circumstances or with the right tweaks. Effective leaders know that just because an idea failed one year does not mean it will fail forever. Successful companies avoid saying, “we tried that before and we don’t want to try it again.” Instead, they say, “let’s try it again now with these improvements.” Noted examples range from Post-It Notes (from chemist Spencer Silver’s failed 1968 attempt to create a strong adhesive for the aerospace industry) to Airbnb (originally founded in 2007 with limited success).
  10. Cannibalizing existing business represents a threat to orthodoxy, but also prevents competitors from doing so. Business leaders often challenge innovations that threaten existing business. However, a greater risk occurs when competitors innovate and challenge the business from outside. Examples of products that successfully self-cannibalized include Coke Zero (Diet Coke) and Pepsi Zero (Diet Pepsi).
  11. Successful innovation teams include deep content expertise and experience, but also generalists and process experts who look through a different lens and ask new questions. Effective leaders build innovation teams with a mix of roles that reflect diversity of thought and create an environment where different perspectives and novel ideas are heard. WTW’s Oliver Narraway writes how these roles include subject matter experts, technology experts, sales colleagues, generalists, futurists, those with specific experience and a strong project leader to bring it all together.
  12. Innovators often feel like imposters, but don’t realize that feeling is part of a growth mindset. Studies show that innovators often experience imposter syndrome, or feelings of inadequacy that manifest as self-doubt or self-perception of being a fraud. WTW’s Paige Seaborn writes how effective leaders work to change the way colleagues think about self-doubt – seeing that it is part of a growth mindset, with an attitude of “I don’t know what I’m doing yet but it’s only a matter of time until I figure it out.”

    I have not failed 10,000 times – I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

    Thomas Edison | Inventor

    The bottom line is getting innovation right is a balancing act that requires effective leaders who can see beyond the contradictions and understand the nuances involved in bringing ideas to fruition.

A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com on February 27, 2023.

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