So You Want To Innovate? Embrace The Risk!

Just about a year ago, I wrote a blog posting entitled “Daddy (or Mommy), where do ideas come from?  In it, I talk about what it takes to conceive an idea.  But what does it take to innovate?

Webster’s Dictionary defines innovate:

  • To effect a change in
  • Do something in a new way

As with ideas, the same factors: need, broad knowledge base, environment, and timing all come into play. We can, In fact, start with the notion that an idea becomes an innovation when it fundamentally changes the way we do things. The more change a new idea makes, the more innovative it is. As an example, being hungry and solving the problem by eating is hardly an innovative idea, but carrying too many devices and solving the problem by combining the phone, the mp3 player, and the internet connected computer into a single handheld device is.

Many excellent, potentially innovative ideas are not used widely enough to cause the greatest change. This is because promoting change, especially in large organizations, is avoided due to the risk and cost involved.

Executive officers are constantly told of the need for them to innovate. The call to ‘innovate or die’ is heard throughout the land, yet when these same leaders attempt to innovate, they are hamstrung by the boardroom’s resistance to change (inertia), and the shareholders’ mandate to keep risk and costs low and revenue high.

While innovation does not necessarily have to be expensive, the idea that innovation comes without risk is absurd; innovation is inherently risky. Examples are plentiful. Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system and Apple’s Lisa and Newton are just two of them. Galileo was met with personal harm for his innovation, and while the Lisa and Newton were both highly innovative products, they both failed miserably. Does that mean that Galileo was wrong to take the risk for the truth? Should Apple not have undertaken those risks? Certainly not.

In order to innovate, one must have the fresh, new idea, but equally important is the commitment to take on the risk. While everyone would like risk-free innovation, it just doesn’t work that way. In today’s economy, companies (and the people who run them) refuse to embrace risk, and therefore refuse to embrace the very same innovation they desire.