Innovation and Potato Peelers: Beware Cheap ImitationsBy
Pictured to the left is my potato peeler/fruit peeler which I purchased in Shanghai. It is dutifully based on the design of typical peelers long sold by Western companies. But I suspect this imitation object was copied and manufactured by people unacquainted with the finer points of peeling potatoes. In peeling potatoes, one frequently encounters eyes or other bad spots that need to be gouged out. Good potato peelers have a curved metal end that can be used for gouging potatoes and fruit. My Shanghai peeler has dutifully copied the general shape of other peelers, with a somewhat pointed tip and a concave surface below it, but the tip is made of thick blunt plastic that is useless in gouging. It is a classic example of imitation without understanding the details of how something works. It can look the same, but the results are disappointing.
The innovation efforts of many companies are like my potato peeler: they imitate what they see others doing, but lack the knowledge and experience needed to make the systems actually work. So we get innovation rhetoric, a temporary budget and Big Program, with consultants sailing in and trying to change employees when the real barriers to innovation may be elsewhere. We get brainstorming sessions that lead to nowhere, momentary IP races that waste resources and leave inventors discourage, innovation funnels that become echo chambers, and improvised staged product launch systems that result in decisions made without adequate knowledge and little hope of success. In some cases it all comes down to instinct and gut feel from an omniscient leader imitating Steve Jobs or some other charismatic innovator, while overruling all logic and leaving a wake of confusion.
Innovation requires experience and deep knowledge. It requires systems and cultures designed with innovation expertise, not just a quick fix and temporary effort to imitate others. Innovation leaders need the support and attention of management at the very top, and systems tailored to enhance the innovation culture across the company. Innovation success is far more difficult that it looks when we are imitating someone who makes it look easy. It rarely is. Real knowledge and real patience are required.