Innovation is not an end, but it is a means to an end

Everyone wants to be innovative these days, in fact it’s virtually impossible to read a web page or marketing literature without the claim being made.

But do we really want people to be innovative?  An associate once observed that on boarding an aeroplane, perhaps the last thing you want to hear your pilot claim is “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I’m your captain and British Airways’ most innovative pilot”.  We don’t want our pilots to be innovative – we want them to be highly predictable – we certainly don’t want any surprises!

Yet the desire for innovation is everywhere.  Traditional industries, sectors and brands are suddenly ‘innovative’.  Banks, manufacturers, insurers and public utilities are seemingly worthless if they aren’t innovative.

The problem with this is that innovation is somehow perceived as an result, whereas in fact it is better perceived as a process, mindset or culture that allows us to reach a result.  Innovation is not an end, but it is a means to an end.

As an example, we were working with a client in a traditional industry who were embarking on an organisational change programme.  As part of the initiation process we asked them to define their organisational purpose, their reason for being.  The initial attempt involved a lot of words being used to promote their R&D and innovation credentials.  “Are you a research organisation?  Do you make your money by selling R&D and innovation services?” we enquired.  “No” came the obvious response.  “So why is innovation part of your purpose?”.  “Because it’s through research and innovation that we create the bespoke products that our customers need”.

Bingo.  Innovation was not their purpose, it was creating bespoke products that their customers need.  That is not to say that innovation was unimportant to them as an organisation – it was an important means to reach their end – but it wan’t the end.  It rarely is.