Why study innovation if we know all about it – or do we?

Do we know all about innovation? Yes we do, and no we don’t.

Yes, we do – there is an enormous amount of excellent innovation research and theory – on factors of success and failure, the role of key individuals, the influence of organizational structure and culture; innovation process models; factors affecting the dissemination and adoption of innovations; innovation and absorptive capabilities. The list is endless.

No, we don’t – most studies focus on product innovation and, then, sometimes explicitly, in many cases implicitly, on radical innovation. However, radical product innovations are relatively rare – just ask a class of students or a workshop with practitioners to mention five examples … Many more product innovations are actually synthetic/architectural, while the wide majority, and indeed the most successful ones, are some combination of variance development, customization, and product improvement. Far fewer studies focus on radical process, organizational or market innovation, observing that they happen, occasionally, rather than explaining their conduct, success or failure. Not particularly unimportant areas, though – just think of “the machine that changed” not only the car manufacturing world, but also for example the airline industry.

Yes, we do – we also know a lot about less radical, synthetic/architectural, and incremental innovation, surprisingly little about their success rates, but their long-term effect is enormous. Today’s cars and mobile phones are the results of many years of this type of innovations. And hardly any company established more than 10 or 15 years ago would exist today if it had not improved its products, product portfolio, and design, manufacturing and delivery processes, if it had not adapted its organization and, at least, reacted to changes in its industry and markets.

No, we don’t – we do not really understand how to get all the knowledge we have to work in companies. We know a lot about radical product innovation – yet, their reported success rates vary between 20% and perhaps 40%, in spite of the state-of-the-theory. In contrast, there is relatively little robust operations management theory, but the success rate of manufacturing operations is huge. A company delivering 40% of its products according to specifications or delivering 40% of its orders on time would go bankrupt the day after tomorrow, if not before. We know much about incremental process innovation and other forms of continuous improvement – but, as John Bessant and Sarah Caffyn once wrote: the problem is not in that concept but in its implementation.

Knowledge is not the problem, implementation is. Rather than continuing adding more and more factors to our innovation theories, and putting huge research effort into increasing the explanatory power of our theories with 1%, we should change focus towards the question how we get all we know out there, into industry. Develop implementation theory and methods, and teach and, especially, train our students and the managers we work with in how to actually manage innovation, and do a good job at that.


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© Continuous Innovation Network | October 2, 2017