Can Innovation Be Commoditized?

In the course of my work I read a lot of academic research, business books and professional case studies.  Whether it’s Kim’s blue ocean strategy, Christensen’s jobs to be done, or maybe even Chesbrough’s open innovation the renowned thinkers nearly always devise a hypothesis, and then test that hypothesis out in a particular scenario.  When that scenario proves their hypothesis, they write it up and fame follows.

Case studies, such as those made famous by Harvard Business School, are often the same.  They describe how a particular organization has achieved success, with the notion being that there are lessons in what they’ve done for you and your organization.

The thing is with both of these approaches, you and your organization are almost certainly going to be wildly different to those used in the research or case study.  You might operate in a different country or industry, you’ll almost certainly have very different resources at your disposal, your market conditions will be different.  Does that render them useless?  Does it mean that following their guidance is a fool’s errand?

What to commodify?

Yes and no.  Let me use an example to illustrate my point.  It’s an example from the world of sport, and as I’m a keen cyclist (and a Brit), I’ll use the philosophy of marginal gains used by the British cycling team to achieve unheralded success.  The philosophy is a simple one.  The cyclist and their team do thousands of things during the course of training and racing that influence their performance.  Manager Dave Brailsford figured that if they can make small improvements in each of these things, that would add up to tremendous improvements across the board.

A long story short, the philosophy has proven wildly successful.  Not only did the team win a whole heap of Olympic gold medals, but they also went onto win the Tour de France with a British rider for the first time in history, and went on to win five of the last six editions of the famous race.

Of course, it’s highly likely that your own organization doesn’t have a cycling team, so the direct comparisons are negligible.  You won’t be able to apply lessons as though it’s a recipe book you can copy and paste, but the point is that you can take the philosophy of what they did, and then figure out for yourself how that can be applied to your own organization, in your own unique circumstances.

This is pretty much how I think of the management theories espoused by the doyen’s of our industry, or indeed that marketed by consultancies.  They’ll be bringing to you a philosophy, a standardized approach that has been shown to work across multiple sectors, but the only way you’ll get value from it is if you contribute significantly to the process and make sure that whatever you’re given is customized significantly for you and your organization’s unique circumstances.

I’m afraid there isn’t a simple way around this.  Just as you can’t expect to parachute in a software tool and expect magic to happen, neither can you expect to parachute in a new concept or process.  I’ve written before about the growing number of organizations ‘doing’ some form of open innovation, but how the majority of them fail to invest in the skills required to make the most of it and to ensure that the broad approach is tailored to their unique circumstances.

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