Friday, February 10, 2006


Innovation in corporate America

In my travels I have ran across interesting spins being put on the notion of innovation. Sadly, though no one has talked much about how innovation should be thought about in context of an enterprise architecture discipline. Some would see innovation as distinct from transformation which is the current banner many enterprise architecture practices are carrying. The real question that should be asked, it is more of a continium than a distinction?

While I am never conforming to any definition made by others, within my own mind I believe that I am one of the most innovative thinking individuals on the planet. Innovation starts with an individual asking themselves frequently what do I not know? Architects who are caught up in "best practices" can never be innovative and are condemned to accepted architecture orthodoxy. I cannot make a prediction that what I know now is the only and best answer for the problem and therefore except that there is no such thing as a best practice.

Many folks have heard me rant about the problems with industry analysts, but in further thinking about it I have now concluded that industry analysis kills innovation! Enterprises that seek novel approaches to problems within their domain in the past have started with reading the research reports from their favorite analyst firms which have created wonderful taxonomies around vendor solutions with the end result of making the problem space somewhat commodity out of the gate.

Innovators on the other hand, do not necessarily start with industry research or at least don't think of it as gospel but merely a small portion of input into solving a larger problem. The problem though is that innovators tend to think on the edge and edge thinkers are more or less excluded once the mainstream conventional thinkers have had their say. Conventional thinkers appreciate predictibility which is in most situations diametrically opposed to innovation. Once Fortune 500 companies have looked at recommendations as laid out by analysts and decided the supplier based on analyst predictions end of story, innovation isn’t coming from anywhere else.

There are three reasons why innovation usually is either practiced in isolation or done in such a manner that isn't sustainable:

Innovators seldom, if ever, sit at their desks and conceive brilliant, readily applicable ideas. Innovators actively follow their ideas and learn from their mistakes. Innovators turn the impractical into the viable by envisioning ways of changing the game or adding new elements to the formula. This is not a clean or easy process. The organization that seeks to act innovatively needs to be willing to tolerate smart failures, those in which we learn or gain valuable insights. There is an element of risk in this posture. Time, effort and energy can be applied without the expected goal being achieved.

These risks, however, need to be balanced against the risk of doing nothing or of doing the same things when they are no longer potent. In a competitive business environment, competitors are looking to evolve your winning formulas. New technologies are enabling new options. Discoveries in seemingly unrelated fields can hold game-changing implications that you are not prepared to cope with. There is a limited shelf life to a winning formula and it is rapidly shrinking as the rate of change increases. Good or bad, that is the fact of life in business today.

Businesses that don’t take this fact into account, that don’t build it into their thinking, that fail to plan for multiple possible futures are courting failure. Businesses that abandon their strategies as soon as the unexpected occurs, focusing instead on doing whatever it takes to make the numbers work, don’t really have strategies in the first place, or at least are not committed to them.

Innovation requires the ability to see the unexpected or the unpredicted. The ability to see what isn’t obvious, to see unexpected connections, to envision an end state that does not yet exist is fundamental to the innovative process. The ability to see the unexpected goes against the way that the mind usually works. The human brain is set up to see what it expects to see. It is wired to ignore things that it perceives as irrelevant. Under crisis conditions attention narrows based upon old assumptions and crucial data can be overlooked or ignored. We develop tunneled vision. Blind spots emerge.

In order to live the intention to innovate there are several things that any organization must do. It must develop the appetite for rigorous thinking and build the muscles that sustain it. It must establish a culture that embraces reasonable risk. It requires the exercise of a corporate imagination. Finally, it requires the creation of an innovation process, a way of stimulating innovative thinking and channeling it into the mainstream of the organization’s thought processes.

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