Behind, they have left the familiar territory of ‘quality’, that delivered almost guaranteed (yet limited) improvements. Ahead, ‘innovation’ offers an exciting journey, where you can’t see the end from the beginning. But this demands a leap of faith. And, as we know, matters requiring faith tend to stay at the door of the boardroom.
Back in the 60s, when the quality movement emerged in corporate practice, the promise was very pragmatic: You embed quality as part of the process– as a competence – and get back cost reduction, happier clients and higher sales and profit. All very tangible and glowing outcomes, so any cultural blockages were rapidly cleared. Quality became a basic competitive requirement.
Thirty years later, a new fad invaded the boardroom. It was the time for innovation.
The idea let loose some frothy corporate enzymes, but it also met resistance from hard-line executives. Still, many Fortune 500 (faced with decreasing sales and margins, more demanding customers and relentless competition – sometimes from other industries) were determined to take that leap of faith. They found that innovation delivered not only new business opportunities and white spaces but also process improvements and (surprise, surprise!) new culture and behaviours.
A blissful promise
Nokia is a great example from back in 1996. The company went from a confusing industrial conglomerate to be the leading and most innovative mobile phone manufacturer. Whirlpool is another inspiring story. Nancy Tennant Snyder and Deborah L. Duarte reveal in their book Unleashing Innovation: How Whirlpool Transformed an Industry, ‘We did not have to invent a discontinuous series of innovations to change the dynamics of an industry; rather, innovating around articulated and unarticulated customer needs at the core of the business would have a significant impact on our success’.
Innovation became a must-have in organisations. This trend was reinforced by companies born with innovation already embedded in the way they worked. The usual culprits are Google and Apple, among others leading the list. Companies like Cemex and W. L. Gore also offer extraordinary case studies.
Innovation practitioners rapidly developed their own toolkit: skills, metrics, processes, technology and organisational structures to help any company absorb innovation culture with the goal of, well, creating an innovation culture!