Innovate or Execute

Earl Beede
Construx Senior Fellow

“We want our team to be more innovative.” Where have you heard that one before? Why do employers want their staff to become innovative? Have our brains been stuck in reality of the day-to-day for too long? Do we just need to innovate ourselves into greatness?

I don’t think so and I don’t think employers really want teams to fully innovate.

You see, to innovate means to disrupt the current status quo. It means to take a chance on something we haven’t done before, something that will likely fail. Innovation often includes failing and failing again; learning 50 or 100 ways something will not work before finding the one way that it will. Scott Berkun pointed this out years ago in his book The Myths of Innovation. Risk-taking leads to mistakes that lead to learning that leads to more mistakes/learning that might payout and, then again, the risk-taking may just give us a new understanding that you can’t do that.

So, do our employers want us taking the processes they have paid dearly to implement and products they have scheduled out for the next 15 quarters and, individually, do something disruptive? Every team member taking a risk to see what they can learn and then build on?
Wouldn’t that be chaos? Anyhow, our leaders are still asking for firm commitments to deliver the large feature list with four-fifths of the resources necessary, so I am pretty sure they are not asking for us to take the time to experiment and disrupt.

No, what they really want is what they always wanted, for teams to do more development, with fewer resources, in a faster time, while improving quality. They want us to get better at the execution. It just sounds better if they call it innovation.

Now, please don’t think I am completely cynical. I do think that the board of directors and maybe even the C-level officers want to have innovative companies. I believe that there needs to be a part of a company whose primary mission is to make the rest of the company obsolete. But those disruptive parts need to be small, isolated groups, kept out of the day-to-day delivery of the existing products or services.
What employers should be asking for is for most of the company to be focused on executing the existing plans and for some of the company to be trying to put the executing majority into a whole new space.

Execution and innovation.

Execution creates the predictability that makes customers happy and the revenue stream that makes the shareholders happy. To improve the execution is doing more with less; finding better ways to create the same thing, meeting the same basic goals. Improvement in execution moves more money into the potential profit pool that can be used to pay shareholders, staff bonuses, or fund innovation.

Innovation drains the profit pool. It takes up resources doing things that, in the short term, do not please customers because it doesn’t give them anything that they want today. Innovation irritates those who are trying to get their job done. Innovation creates things that the executing majority often find confusing and silly since it breaks the very categories that they have come to know and love. “Why would anybody want that?” And, because innovation involves a lot of mistakes, the executing majority is often right.

But not always right.

In every combination of execution and innovation, there comes a time with the company must make a bet that the innovation people are close enough to get the innovation right that it is worth risking the core of the company. I say, “close enough” because innovation cannot make a great product. It doesn’t know enough and can’t know enough without a lot of customers getting the product and being able to refine it. Once you get to that step-of customers using it and refining it-then you are back to execution, not innovation. You don’t want to innovate at that stage since innovation is the antithesis of the stability you need to make the incremental improvements required to take a decent product into the land of great products.

Choosing to bet the company core should not be done lightly. The executing majority will try to fight it as the innovation threatens their jobs and, in our western culture, their self-worth. Stockholders and board members will question the competency of those who suggest disruption to the revenue-generating products of today. Competitors will seize the ensuing distraction to take market share away, lowering the revenue stream even more.

Given all that, why would anybody want to be innovative in the small (set aside for the moment that they ‘say’ they want the entire company innovative)?

Because if you don’t do it, somebody else will.

Somebody else will build that better mousetrap and—maybe not immediately, maybe not if it is seen as a novelty rather than innovation, maybe not if the technology is still not mature enough to support the vision—the world will move. When that innovation happens, the same disruption will occur to your business and the only response will be to shrink and, if lucky, live to innovate another day. If not lucky, well…
Innovation and execution. Create then deliver. Execute in the large and innovate in the small. With the majority, get better at what you do every day. With a few, take some risks and learn something. And occasionally, bet the business.