Innovation’s Primary Fuel and Higher Purpose

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runLaunching innovation is easy; sustaining it is difficult.

What is innovation’s primary fuel? Does it have a higher purpose?

Interesting questions, but I was not on a quest to answer them, I was not even meditating on the questions. I was merely watching a biennial ritual on TV — the Europeans messing up the Americans in golf.

A little context for all you non-golfers out there.

Every two years, courtesy of the Ryder Cup tournament, America goes into a deep funk, and a bunch of Europeans go totally punch-drunk on Guinness and champagne. The drama is high-voltage, the script bizarrely predictable. The star-studded American team suddenly turns pedestrian, heads south, the Europeans discover their mojo, and more, and race to victory. The 2012 version played in Medinah was no exception — U.S. slumped, EU soared in an amazing come-from-behind victory.

The commentators, as usual, were tongue-tied. Except Johnny Miller, he never runs out of things to say. One astute comment though caught my ear. It was an explanation for why the Europeans won. According to the commentator, I forget who it was, the Europeans won because they exhibited greater sustained passion, and because they were motivated by a higher purpose; the higher purpose being winning the cup for Seve Ballestoros, the iconic Spaniard, more a Matador than a golfer, symbol of European Golf, a principal architect of European Ryder cup competitiveness first, domination later.

Passion and higher purpose — I had tuned off the golf, and tuned in innovation. It struck me that the two carry significant meaning for innovation as well.

Several companies launch their innovation programs with a great deal of enthusiasm and energy. But then they hit a wall, the momentum stalls, and innovation starts sputtering. It’s not lack of people and resources alone, those do matter, but my research and consulting experience point to a more important reason.

Companies that run out of gas invariably have embraced the symbolism of innovation — it’s what you do to be perceived as hip, or to signify how progressive you are to your stakeholders, but they have not imbibed its spirit. Their passion for innovation is skin-deep, like the athlete who aspires to win, but lacks the commitment to practice.

Companies that are able to sustain forward innovation movement are able to do so mainly because a few key people in the company, with the requisite power, of course, genuinely believe that innovation needs to be the company’s #1 priority, not because the experts are saying it, but because they are absolutely and totally convinced that if they don’t they will lose customers and jeopardize their future growth.

It’s the difference between weekly piety expressed on a particular day of the week, Tuesdays, Fridays, Sundays (depending on one’s religious persuasion) and living a spiritual life day in and day out, because you are convinced that all other alternatives are intrinsically inferior.

What about higher purpose? Does innovation have a higher purpose? Should it have a higher purpose? Most certainly, it does — it should.

Despite all the talk of concerning customer-centricity, market-focused, how important customers are to the long-term health of a business, etc., most companies continue to be inwardly focused. Technology still provides the major impetus for new product development (NPD) and innovation. The road to the market very often still begins with new cool features.

OK, but what about the customer? Is the customer buying? There is a brilliant article/case study, titled “The Quality Improvement Customers Didn’t Want!”

Innovation has a higher purpose. It is serving the customer. Innovation should only have one goal — the creation of customer value. In the final outcome, only the customer decides if something is valuable or not, not the factory (I should not be heard as saying the customer can tell you exactly what they want in the future; I have addressed this issue in my previous posts). Failure to serve this higher purpose leads to disillusionment, dissatisfaction with the outcome of innovation programs, and ultimately to innovation stall.

All customer value is subject to decay, because of emergence of new alternatives; competition, technologies, change in beliefs and values (smoking, fatty foods, etc.). The only sensible thing to do, knowing that even if you are king of the hill today, you may not be tomorrow, is to make continuous customer value creation your Holy Grail.

Passion for Innovation + Making Innovation Serve a Higher Purpose = Winning Customers’ Hearts. Inevitably, their wallets will follow.