Understanding Why Innovation Is so Difficult – Part I




There is a big difference between improvement and innovation. Improvement usually means more and better. Innovation refers to creating and implementing the new and different.

Improvement of what already exists is much easier. “True innovation,” or doing something completely new and disruptive, tends to be fiercely resisted by the existing organization.

Organizational inertia always pushes for continuing what the organization is already doing. Newness of more than a trivial dimension is typically squashed by the ongoing organization. Yes, squashed!

Slightly paraphrasing Harvard's Ted Levitt:

"Anyone who tends to doubt this needs only to examine his/her own organizational experience… Whether in an organization, a government agency, a country club, or church, an intense and usually fierce struggle predictably surrounds efforts to do drastically new or different things…

… One may ponder why the struggles are always so abrasive, and why the leaders of change efforts always pay such a heavy personal price?…"

Said Peter F. Drucker, "The people responsible for the existing business will always be tempted to postpone action on anything new, entrepreneurial or innovative until it is too late…”

Allegiance to the Daily Task Is First and Foremost

Drucker and Levitt showed the most important task of the existing organization is to get today's job done. Rules, procedures and standards define what is to be done, and how.

Reflecting on his extensive experience with organizations, Levitt observed:

"Allegiance to the daily task remains the predominant and inevitable focus….

… Within this powerfully constraining context, to focus as well on trying to get powerful innovations – to do entirely new and therefore disruptive things – is an especially difficult and fragile undertaking."

Most organizations establish order and discipline, that is, deep routinization of a significant part of the work required to produce today's products and services.

Innovation, or doing new and different things, by its very nature, destabilizes the organizational structure.

This makes many managers uncomfortable – especially those without experience in how to accommodate or create the appropriate organizational structures for needed innovations.

Wherever routine reigns, expect fierce – but in many instances camouflaged – resistance to innovation and innovators.

Take-home message: Newness is unsettling and disruptive to the daily tasks. Therefore, the human tendency is to focus on today's job and purge from the system anything that is perceived as disruptive.

Without doubt, making innovation happen is by its very nature disruptive.

The inescapable conclusion of assigning tomorrow’s job to those responsible for today’s job is that needed innovations won’t happen.

Some Hard-Earned Lessons

General managers or managing directors of a given division don't act like the chief executive of an independent business with a stake in the total business – especially if their compensation is linked to yearly profit.

The risk of an innovation not being immediately successful (even if it appears the innovation would fortify an existing market position if successfully implemented) causes general managers or managing directors not to trade off short-term profits for long-term growth because it impacts their yearly take-home pay.

Sobering Thoughts About Needed Innovations

Sustained success, however, requires continuous innovation. Said Drucker:

“It is not absolutely necessary for every business to search for the idea that will make the future… yet companies somehow survive for a while…

… The big business, in particular, seems able to coast a long time on the courage, work and vision of earlier executives…

But tomorrow always arrives. Slowly, then suddenly, once powerful organizations (e.g., Kodak, Toys “R” Us, General Electric) go bankrupt or are reduced to a shell of its former self.

Continuity and Change Are a Continuum, and Not Opposites

“Every organization needs something new every so often, and yet at the same time,” observed Drucker, “it also needs continuity with respect to what it is already doing…”

Much celebrated Drucker-expert Joseph Maciariello tells the following story in his masterful book A Year with Peter F. Drucker:

“Peter Drucker sternly corrected me when I once suggested that continuity and change are opposites… He yelled,’ No! They are a continuum!’…

… If an organization does not change, they stagnate and die, thus losing continuity…

Therefore, in order to achieve continuity, an organization must be designed to change… That continuity and change are a continuum, and not opposites, might at first seem counterintuitive to you as they once did to me…”


See Part II where we go further into producing & managing innovation: how to structure for innovation.

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