The vast majority of companies want to be innovative, coming up with new products, business models and better ways of doing things. However, innovation is not so easy to achieve. A CEO cannot just order it, and so it will be. You have to carefully manage an organisation so that, over time, innovations will emerge. And CEOs often make a number of common mistakes, that hamper rather than induce such processes.
Believe the numbers
One common mistake is to insist on “seeing the numbers” too much too soon. “What is the size of the market?”, “what is the Net Presen Value calculation?”, “payback time?”, and so on. What they are forgetting is that, for a truly innovative product, for example, it is impossible to reliably produce any numbers. If a CEO insists on hard numbers before the project is even started, it will by sheer definition kill off any truly innovative ones, simply because you cannot compute the size of a market that does not exist yet.
One CEO who understood this well was Intel’s Andy Grove, at the time that an engineer proposed to him to work on something called a “microprocessor”. The engineer could not produce any numbers, consumer research, and not even a good idea in what sort of applications this product was going to be used, but Grove gave permission and a budget anyway. It made Intel one of the most successful companies the world of business has ever witnessed.
Believe success has been attained
Another innovation killer is sustained financial success. We call it the success trap. When an organisation becomes very good at something, top of its industry, it usually starts to focus on the thing (product, technology, or business model) that made its success, crowding out other options and points of view. Initially, this may make it even more successful, but there is going to come a time that its business context is going to change: new technologies, consumer preferences or foreign entrants emerge. And then the company and its top management finds itself trapped in the one thing it does so well, rigidly believing that what brought it its success, will continue to make it prosper. But, in reality, it is rapidly becoming obsolete.
A great illustration of this is the 43 companies featured in the famous business book “In search of excellence” by Peters and Waterman in 1982. These companies were considered to be the most excellent companies in the world at the time but, at present, only 5 of them would still make the list; many of them having disappeared altogether (e.g. Atari, Tupperware, Digital). It illustrates that, paradoxically, it is especially the most successful companies, the top performers of their industry that find it difficult to adapt and survive when the world around them changes.
Believe they know the competition
What always strikes me, if I ask a CEO (or anyone else in an organisation for that matter) “who is your main competitor?”, they always reply with the company that is most like them. And subsequently they can tell me anything about that firm; its strength, weaknesses, products and plans. But in a way, when it comes to innovation, that is slightly delusional. The company that is most like you is really the least important competitor, simply because they are in the same boat as you are.
The most threatening competition often comes from a completely different angle: an adjacent industry, innovative start-up, or substitute. And that is a phenomenon of all times. Sailing shipping companies suffered from the steam engine, radial tyre champion Firestone was brought to its knees by the introduction of bias tyres, newspapers are being squeezed by the internet, while watchmakers suffer from the fact that nowadays everybody already has the time at hand on a mobile phone or laptop. Thinking your biggest competitor is the company most like you, will leave a company dangerously exposed to outside innovation.
Believe that because everybody had always done it this way, it is the best way of doing things
Industries are rife with habits and business practices from which no-one can quite remember why we do them this way. When challenging a CEO on one of those business practices, he lamented to me “Freek, everybody does it this way, and everybody has always been doing it this way; if it wasn’t the best way of doing things, I am sure it would have disappeared by now”.
And standard economic theory would support his point of view: The market is darwinian, therefore it should be weeding out bad practices. But, in reality, he is wrong. In many businesses, practices emerged with good reason, but once the circumstances changed, firms carried on using them for no reason whatsoever. Did newspapers have to be printed for so long on ridiculously large (and expensive) sheets of paper? Heck no; the english law, set up in 1712, that newspapers were going to be taxed based on the number of pages they printed was abolished in 1855. Could low-cost airlines not have worked many years earlier? Are buyback guarantees in book publishing (set up during the Great Depression) really still needed? Is detailingin the pharmaceutical industry still a useful practice? That everybody does it this way is no reason not to challenge it. The greatest innovations often come from challenging industry convention.
Believe the customer
The final error CEOs often make when it comes to innovation, is to ask their customers for their opinion. Pretty much any company I know has a yearly customer survey. However, there are two things wrong with this. Firstly, these people are already your customer; sure they are going to be satisfied with you; the others have already long voted with their feet. We call it selection bias. You are selecting to ask the ones who already like you, but what about the ones who don’t?
Secondly, even when a company is asking potential customers about their ideas for innovation, in the form of market research, it is tricky. It is usually some shape or form of asking respondents whether they would like (and buy) the new idea. Consumer research often is useful but not for truly innovative ideas and markets that do not exist yet. Research on the fax machine came back unambiguous: every respondent answered that they would never buy a machine like that; likewise for the mobile phone. As Farooq Chaudhry, producer at the highly innovative Akram Khan Dance Company, once put it to me: “Customers? Forget about them”; if you want to be really innovative, you have to be leading the customers; not be led by them.