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  • What Innovation Really Is

    Note from Raj Echambadi: Leslie Kwoh published an article in the Wall Street Journal on May 23rd entitled, “You Call That Innovation?” Several of my executive friends forwarded this article to me and asked me for my views on the article. I disagreed with the lack of substantive critique and the general pessimistic tone of the article. So I requested Bruce Vojak, a renowned expert in the domain of innovation, to respond to this article with his views. Given below is Bruce’s terrific commentary.


    A May 23rd Wall Street Journal article by Leslie Kwoh (“You Call That Innovation?”) raised important and provocative questions about innovation.  Her case for the elusive nature of innovation’s meaning and its potential for use as deception was summed up by one of the experts interviewed as, “a chameleon-like word to hide the lack of substance.”

    As she wrestled with its meaning, she did not address an important aspect of it when it comes to business – that innovation only is validated by its acceptance in the marketplace with significant financial return.  It is the surprise, the unexpectedness associated with such acceptance and financial return that leads us to describe a product as a “breakthrough innovation” in contrast with it being only “incremental.”  Ms. Kwoh cited that “More than 250 books with ‘innovation’ in the title have been published in the last three months,” which suggests that no widely accepted view has emerged as to what must be done in order to secure breakthrough innovation success.  In fact, no precise formula or recipe is possible; otherwise there could be no surprise.

    Should this trouble us?  Yes.  But it should not lead us to discard breakthrough innovation as a means to advance the firm.  Instead, it provides an opportunity to gain deeper insight into what innovation really is and how we might appropriately approach it to serve customers, colleagues and shareholders – and to secure competitive advantage.

    Over the past decade, with colleagues Ray Price and Abbie Griffin, I have had the privilege to interview, study, and collaborate with a set of powerful and capable individuals we call Serial Innovators.  These are people who, embedded in their firms, have been credited by managers and colleagues alike for creating and bringing to market multiple breakthrough innovative products and processes, not merely incremental advances.  By hearing their stories across many companies and industries, we have come to understand more clearly breakthrough innovation.

    Focusing our attention on people, in contrast to processes, we noticed recurring patterns of behavior that reappeared similarly but not identically over time, paths that often were retraced by an individual as he or she discovered what would constitute breakthrough innovation.  Further, while the stops along the way to success were similar, no two stories followed the same trajectory.

    We learned that successful breakthrough innovators become deeply, personally immersed in addressing the needs of customer, colleague and shareholder, and that breakthrough innovation can be represented as a non-linear system and, thus, is mathematically chaotic.

    This deep, personal immersion – directed at solving problems of real value – should not be surprising.  In most aspects of life we expect good things from those who are gifted and dedicated, as exemplified in the innovators we observed.

    Mathematically chaotic behavior, on the other hand, is less familiar yet equally powerful.  Non-linear systems abound in nature, ranging from storms to earthquakes.  Yet, mathematically chaotic is not the same as random.  Breakthrough innovation is not merely a matter of closing one’s eyes and rolling the dice.

    Breakthrough innovation, then, is a lot like forecasting the weather.  Meteorologists and innovators both regularly get it wrong.  As such, humility is necessary – boasting about specifics of what will come from investing in breakthrough innovation is dangerous.  But, confidence is necessary, too – managers need to accept uncertainty while expecting serendipity, because the best innovators deeply pursue solutions to important customer and company problems.  Therefore, managerial insight is necessary – managers need to immerse themselves in knowing just as much as, but in a different way than, innovators.  Managing innovators is not a transaction – the best managers relate on a personal level with those rare people who have the skill and motivation to drive breakthrough innovation.

    When we dig in and are serious about understanding innovation, not just saying the words, we should expect to experience hope grounded in the reality that true breakthrough innovation is the fruit of invested, immersed, and highly skilled people rather than the deception of superficial, chameleon-like charlatans.

    Bruce A. Vojak is Associate Dean for Administration in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and serves on the Board of Directors of Midtronics, Inc.. With Abbie Griffin and Ray Price he is co-author of Serial Innovators: How Individuals Create and Deliver Breakthrough Innovations in Mature Firms (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2012).