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Broken Windows of Innovation

Broken Windows of Innovation

| On 21, Jan 2008

James Todhunter

Social policy has long been influenced by the Broken Window Theory.  Strangely, I see a similar phenomenon at work in our innovation neighborhood.  I see the evidence in the language of the discussion that is used.

Usually, I don’t like to engage in what could be called a semantic debate, but in some cases, it can be important.  Language is very powerful.  It frames both our discourse and our thinking.  A few rightly chosen words have the power to inspire.  Alternately, a few carelessly chosen words can start us on a slippery slope towards apathy and resignation.

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In “Seven Habits of Highly Innovative People,” I named “accept nothing less than success” as one of the traits I see in great innovators.  The message is simple.  Innovation is hard work.  It takes dogged determination to see it through.  While it is important to learn how to fail fast, it is even more important to learn when to do so and when to stick it out.  Thomas Edison said it best, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Yet, we still hear many people espousing the philosophy of failure as a key tenant of the innovators lot.  In yesterday’s New York Times article “The Risk of Innovation: Will Anyone Embrace It?”, G. Pascal Zachary writes about the challenge of the innovator to predict the success of a new market innovation.  Zachary goes on to say, “FOR technological innovators, the cash register can ring either way. They may achieve a smash-hit breakthrough, or simply make a slight improvement in a technology that humans already feel comfortable with. Most innovators no longer even try to predict human reactions to their creations.”  He punctuates this last comment by quoting Henry Kressel, a partner at Warburg Pincus and a co-author of “Competing for the Future: How Digital Innovations Are Changing the World,” as saying, “You throw technologies into the market and see what sticks.”

It would be a sad state of affairs if product development and innovation were truly the game of random chance that Zachary describes.  But, it is not.  How many times have you seen a big product launch fail miserable that caused you to wonder, “What were they thinking?”  How many times have you looked at a case study that concluded the poor outcome could have been avoided if the people involved had only consider some factor that in retrospect should have been obvious.  Sure, hindsight is 20/20.  But that doesn’t mean that big failures aren’t the result of poor execution.

Good adherence to and execution of repeatable innovation best practices yields superior results.  This is an undeniable fact that has been shown in many research reports.  If you recognize the need to innovate, then there is a clear path that avoids slogging through the muck, mire, and poor returns of the accidental innovation morass.

Eschew the temptation to accept mediocrity in innovation accomplishment by chanting the simple innovation means failure refrain.  Every act of accepting the status quo in favor of investing in sustainable innovation mastery creates another broken window in our innovation neighbor and inures us to the gradual descent into the accident innovation abyss.

[Crossposted from]