A new ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’: Sorting through the pile of later theories

In his 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Clayton Christensen advanced his theory of disruptive innovation. His works soon became the gospel of innovation and remained so for more than a decade. While the theory has evolved and is a staple in business schools, it has been misinterpreted, and more recently subject to serious criticism and take-downs. As is the case with most models, the theory of disruptive innovation tells us little of a practical nature, much less anything of the art and science of getting innovation done.

Looking back over the last twenty-years, there has been no shortage of theories, models, methodologies, books, conferences and consultants explaining the contours of the innovation landscape. Each has offered opinions and prescriptions for: What is innovation? How do you measure it? What are its dimensions? How do you adapt and respond to change? What distinguishes true product innovation from incremental product improvement?

Here are two updates to Christensen’s theory that I’ve found most useful.

The scope of modern business innovation is broad, extending beyond conventional notions that define innovation in terms of new product development or research and development. A 2006 article, published in the “MIT Sloan Management Review,” defined twelve dimensions of business innovation. The framework has four business anchors – offerings, customers, processes and points of presence, and eight other dimensions (“avenues of pursuit”) of the business from platforms to customer experience to brands. In essence, a 360-degree view of the innovation landscape is shown below.

Businesses can benefit from this research in two ways. First, the framework’s holistic view of the organization compels a broader assessment of the opportunities for innovation, and provides a means to explore combinations and interconnections between dimensions. Second, the methodology includes capabilities to measure and score the dimensions. These tools have been used to benchmark the innovation strategies of firms compared to those of their competitors to further help in identifying promising opportunities.

This is an acceptable view of the dimensions of innovation as a way for businesses to frame and prioritize opportunities. However, we are still missing an understanding of the characteristics and common themes of innovation and how companies can improve it. For this we tap into the opinions of some of the leading innovation experts. By drawing on and summarizing insights from an informal survey of fifteen business and academic experts, examining this Ideo innovation study of 100+ companies and delving into Walter Isaacson’s 2014 book, “The Innovators,” we find:

  • Execution is everything. An innovative idea, the vision, is nothing without a team that can execute it. Success depends on the visionaries and the executors working together.
  • Creativity is a collaborative effort. It requires working together across business functions to approach opportunities and challenges from all angles.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t over-design. Drive to simplify the end-user experience, be able to express your concept as simply as possible.
  • Adapt and respond to change. In a time of unprecedented change, companies need to adapt and evolve to the ever-changing needs of their customers.
  • Iterate on multiple ideas. Don’t over-invest in a single idea or single outcome, maintain a balanced pipeline of big and small ideas, be more flexible in experimentation.
  • Invest in an innovation culture. Strategy is important, but it is culture that drives most of the smaller decisions that permeate an innovation organization.

Innovation is hard to pin down. It’s a buzzword, it’s complex, it’s the idea of progress; it’s change, creative destruction, key to growth, mother of invention. But no matter how one ends up defining it or whether its looked upon simply as a straightforward process or as a core strategic component, innovation is fast becoming a critical component in today’s high-velocity, technology-driven business environment.

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