We live in a period of time that is obsessed with time. And for good reason. Time scales are shrinking. Product life cycles are shrinking, due to many new competitors and the ability to copy and scale up new products quickly. It’s easier to enter a market, easier to manufacture, easier to bring new products to market, for established firms and for new firms. Increasingly, consumers have learned to expect new features and products on a regular basis, and are disappointed when icons like Apple don’t constantly produce earth-shattering new solutions with every iteration of the iPhone. This focus on time compression, however, has terrible consequences for innovation.
I wrote a blog post recently that described Einstein’s approach to problem solving. He was asked how he would approach solving a problem if he only had an hour to solve it. His response was interesting, in light of time compression. He said he’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes searching for an answer. His answer, I believe, is in direct contradiction to what many innovation teams do, which is to plunge in and try to find a viable solution as quickly as possible, before careful contemplation and definition of the problem, the objectives and the methods.
Only fools rush in
Why is it risky and a mistake to “rush in” to an innovation activity? Because the definition, methods and outcomes are often so uncertain. You can rush in, quite certain of success, when you have the experience and expertise to skip over the definitional activities and when you KNOW the tools and methods inside and out. In other words, you can rush into any activity that is familiar and repetitive, like increasing efficiency and cutting costs, things you’ve been doing frequently in the past. Most organization have exceptionally little experience with innovation, and even the experience they have has been incremental at best. You can’t rush in and skip the careful contemplation when you aren’t an expert. However, the pressure for new products and services is high, time is compressed and customer expectations are constantly increasing. Can you and your team take the time to define the innovation activity, prepare accordingly, gain the skills and competencies you need before plunging in? Can you afford not to?
Perhaps the best service an executive can offer to an innovation team is to provide “cover” for the team to move more slowly, gain skills and confidence in an innovation methodology and define the problem and the objectives effectively, without pressure for an immediate result. This is when the best thinking and best outcomes will occur. Rushing through the start will only deliver incremental solutions that don’t provide distinction or differentiation from existing products.