Don't you believe it: Innovation is always the answer

Innovation is often touted as a universal panacea to whatever ails the body corporate. If we are feeling stuck, we are naturally drawn to innovation. The idea is appealing, but often wrong.

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The Intel story is worth revisiting as a great example of this. Intel is, and always was, a highly innovative company. Yet in the mid-1980s it had a near-death experience. Its memory business was being destroyed by the Japanese. The solution was to throw all its resources into its new, highly promising microprocessor business. Easy to see, but horribly hard to do. Intel procrastinated. It spent more than a year, in the words of then president Andy Grove, 'wandering in the valley of death' before, just in time, dumping memory and going for microprocessors. Had it delayed much longer, hardly anyone today would remember the firm. It wasn't lack of innovation that nearly destroyed Intel, but the grip of the old.

This explains why so many innovation efforts suffocate under the pressure of business as usual. Innovation requires some empty space to move into, but most organisations are already over-full with products, customers and practices. Before we can adopt new ideas, we need to free ourselves from old ones. This is increasingly important in a world where the past is no longer much of a guide to what business will be like in the future.

Loosening the hold of those old ideas is hard and unforgiving work, as well as personally risky - there will always be those who vigorously defend the status quo. By comparison, a few innovation sessions look like harmless fun for all.

I'm not arguing against innovation, but I would urge you to be realistic about whether you need more of it. Like most cure-alls, it should be used with discretion. Most firms are already as innovative as they need to be, and what is stopping them making progress are all the old habits and policies that die so hard.

- Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants and author of Everything You Know About Business is Wrong (Headline, £13.99). More at

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