Three ways to address innovation in business

Innovation is the big imperative of the next economy, many say. But so many things currently endemic to the American way of business impede the American way of innovation:

Me-tooism. Every smartphone is playing catchup to the iPhone, which was innovative and creative. Any touch-based smartphone that follows, no matter how cool and incrementally beneficial, by the sheer fact of chronology will forever be an imitation of Someone Else’s Great Idea.

Branding. Corporations have become so dictatorially de rigueur about their precious branding standards that they are now preventing their own product people, marketing, and external agencies from innovating. More attention is being paid to fonts and articulation of value propositions than actual creation of value.

Management fear. It’s a scary world for managers now. Hackers and mere children can bring down their IT frameworks; disgruntled rebels can leak enterprise secrets; corporate humiliations and executive embarrassments lurk everywhere. The natural inclination is to batten down the hatches and to distrust everyone — but that’s exactly the wrong instinct.

Instilling innovation means instilling creativity, which in turn means instilling an atmosphere of trust — of the ability to fail repeatedly without consequence. This is the essence of experimentation, which is scientific and exploratory and more reality-based than the current culture of corporate narcissism. Creative attitudes, much in evidence in American business during the 1960s, vanished with the ascendancy of the CFO and the myopic attention to short-term financial performance. The general financialization of the American economy is why mathematicians and physicists became quants instead of useful citizens who discovered and invented things. (I should talk, I’m part of the problem.)

Here are three ways to address the innovation gap:

Insist on uniqueness. Say “If everyone else is doing it, we shouldn’t.” Otherwise the business world becomes an endless succession of fake choices based on Innovator/Imitator pairings (see Coke/Pepsi, or iPhone/Android). Do something else. Fight the swamp of passive me-tooism by standing up with active contrarianism. It’s more spinal.

Smash a brand standard. Breaking a brand standard may have a slim potential of damaging the brand — but it might expand it instead. Instead of saying “No” and “We’ve always done it like x,” make your logo orange if it’s blue. Not arbitrarily, but for a focused and specific purpose. It will be surprising to your audience, and therefore more interesting. Then change it back. It will be surprising again. Voila! Awareness.

Delegate some courage. Give people leeway to do things you don’t know how to do. Control-freakdom and micromanagement are strategies that succeed only for the timid. Inspiration is more productive than underutilization and bored resistance. In business, bold is the new black.

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