Most Dangerous Innovation Misperception – The Silver Bullet Approach

Braden Kelley’s November 2009 innovation perspective series asked participants to weigh in on this question:

What is the most dangerous current misconception in innovation?

Here’s our reponse (cross posted at Blogging Innovation).

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When companies think every innovation has to be a shooting star

Their innovation efforts aren’t going to get very far

A recent Accenture survey of 630 executives from large firms in the U.S. and U.K. found this alarming stat regarding innovation inside enterprises:

58% believe their organization is looking for the next silver bullet rather than pursuing a portfolio of opportunities

Taking this view is a dangerous misperception about innovation. It’s dangerous for two reasons:

  • It relegates smaller innovations to second class status
  • It negatively impacts the innovation culture

Let’s examine those two issues more fully.

The Go Big or Go Home Syndrome

There is a popular philosophy in the world of business and technology: Go Big or Go Home. It’s a good concept. If you don’t aim high, it can be hard to create enterprising new initiatives. This philosophy has an important place in the annals of industry for driving innovation.

But when this philosophy is your only view about innovation, you’ve set up a situation where smaller innovations are not valued. If they’re not valued, you’re not likely to see them. Yet smaller innovations can provide meaningful returns, individually or in aggregate. I love the example that management guru Jim Collins tells about the U.S. Marines.

The Marines would issue new enlistees a uniform on their first day in the service. After two weeks of intensive training, these recruits needed a new uniform because the initial ones no longer fit. Marine policy was that the recruits original uniforms were to be destroyed. That’s right, thrown away.

Archuleta thought that policy was daft, and that the uniforms could simply be washed and used for the next class of recruits. He asked his superior, and was told, “No. It’s against regulations. Forget about it.” Eventually, Archuleta got a new supervisor who thought he had a good idea, and promoted it up the military chain. The idea was well-received at the higher levels, and implemented across the Marines. It resulted in annual cost savings of half a million dollars.

It was not a silver bullet innovation by any means. But it does illuminate that a series of smaller innovations, in aggregate, can provide meaningful benefits to organizations. For another example, Toyota’s rise to a global automotive power was built on millions of small ideas from employees.

The challenge with an “all disruptive, all the time” approach to innovation is that the odds are stacked against you. There will be hits, but there will even more failures. Meanwhile, lower hanging innovation fruit goes unharvested.

Downside for Innovation Culture

A second problem with relying only on a silver bullet approach is that it becomes less a rallying cry and more a millstone around your neck. Culturally, the expectation has been set that you need to come up with game changing ideas.

The problem is that it can be hard for us to go from zero to 60 when we’re caught up trying to deliver on our daily work. I think in terms of the employee innovation spectrum below:

employees innovation spectrum

Where are innovations most likely to occur? When we have to solve problems we encounter every day. Greenlighting employees to innovate – and share those innovations more broadly – on the myriad problems and opportunities is a superior approach to relying only on Go Big or Go Home.

It’s better for customers. Do you really think customers are waiting for your silver bullet innovation? They’ll be happy to buy it assuming it fulfills a job they have. But in the meantime, they want to see improvements in the current products and services they enjoy.

It’s better for employees, who have an avenue for their innovation energies. It increases innovation share of mind without requiring the mental cycles required for breakthrough. But once these innovation energies are tapped, expect an increase in all forms of innovation.

Views on this Misperception from the Market

I posted the Accenture study to the Front End of Innovation Group on LinkedIn, and it received a couple interesting comments:

That more than 50% of the executives are looking for a silver bullet rather than at a innovation portfolio is alarming. It is more innovation gambling than looking for the development of a solid competitive advantage.

Helmut Albrecht, Headway International Consulting

There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of an opportunity but building an innovation strategy around it is just not sustainable. Unfortunately, this seems to be a growing trend in some parts of the Western world. Contrast this with the widespread mentality of many, many incremental product and process improvements in some parts of Asia.

Patrick Popp, Director, Global Electrical Engineering, GM

Game-changing innovations are invaluable for companies to stay on top of their markets. Just don’t let them be the only kind of innovation your firm seeks.

(Cross-posted @ the Spigit Blog)

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Strategic Consultant with HYPE Innovation, helping enterprises get more value from their innovation programs. Firm believer in the concept of jobs-to-be-done, which stresses the importance of understanding customers' wants and needs. Also sports a 2:57 marathon PR. Dad to two awesome kids.

2 responses to “Most Dangerous Innovation Misperception – The Silver Bullet Approach”

  1. srini

    Summary: Think Big — Build Step by Step.

  2. masonic secrets

    Yah.. you really need to think big in order to understand our situation today.
    What is this silver bullet approach?