It was an eccentric English cleric, Charles Caleb Colton, who noted that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.
Two centuries later, little has changed about human nature – and in the corporate world, imitation is rife where innovation should be.
Global companies such as 3M (‘15 per cent rule’) and Procter & Gamble (Connect + Develop) are held up as examples of ‘best practice’, leading many organisations to impose a similar innovation template regardless of the fit with their culture and circumstance.
Sometimes it works (think Google’s ’20 per cent rule’), but more often it fails, increasing internal frustration, wasting precious resources and stifling any genuine appetite to innovate.
“It’s no mystery why companies emulate their most successful peers,” say McKinsey directors Maria Capozzi, Art Kellen and Sven Smit in ‘The Perils of Best Practice: Should you emulate Apple?’. “Tried-and-true approaches often seem preferable to starting from scratch, whether for developing new products or running efficient supply chains … However… managers tempted to distill universal insights from what are in fact exceptional companies put their own businesses at risk for strategic or operational missteps.”
As University of Queensland Business School researcher Tim Kastelle points out, not every organisation must aspire to be a world-class innovator.
“When we often hear things like ‘Innovate or die’, it might seem like this is a very bad place to be,” Kastelle says. “But this is not necessarily true. Some firms that don’t innovate are actually reasonably safe, at least for the time being.”
These include monopolies or well-established firms in stable industries. However, as circumstances change, so the pressure or desire to innovate can increase. This requires a strategy and a commitment from the top to identify and address gaps in capability.
It’s that intense leadership focus that’s too often lacking, observes leading innovation blogger, Paul Hobcraft.
“Although our business leaders constantly confirm that innovation is in their top three priorities, they stay stubbornly disengaged in facilitating this across their organisations,” Hobcraft says. “They are more than willing to allocate responsibility down the organisation, failing to recognise their pivotal role in managing or orchestrating innovation engagement themselves, or even ensuring the mechanisms are fully in place.”
No one could ever accuse the late Steve Jobs of being hands-off.
“Apple is today’s all-purpose innovation icon”, the McKinsey team say. Yet “a unique confluence of leadership, talent, strategy, and technology has brought Apple extraordinary success and raises the question of how relevant a model the company can be for others as they chart their own innovation course”.
There are many ways to get started on the innovation journey, numerous tried-and-tested methodologies, processes and simple tools. However, creating momentum, building capability and producing tangible outcomes require significant commitment and a fundamental cultural shift most organisations seem unwilling or unable to make.
“Leaders can’t just set the context and hope that innovation happens,” Anthony says. “Innovation is enough of an unnatural act in most companies (which were built to scale yesterday’s business model, not discover tomorrow’s) that it requires the day-by-day attention of the company’s top leadership team or it simply won’t stick.”