I do, however, agree that “innovation” is a buzz word momentarily. In theory, innovation just means “newness.” Anytime a broad range of businesses open their eyes to the value of a discipline or a new technique there is a period where it causes a buzz. However, I don’t see innovation as a short-lived fad. In the future, I think we will demand to know more precisely what kind of newness we are addressing when someone says “innovation.”
The temporary flood of innovation “experts” makes it very difficult for organizations to differentiate between what’s hot air and what’s not. Some of these “experts” send companies on the wrong track. For instance, Douglas B. Holt, a branding expert I admire, recently turned into an innovation “expert.” Holt writes about cultural innovation in his latest book, but he merely describes brand innovation. Does that type of innovation work? Yes, but it doesn’t mean one should give up older innovation strategies.
4. How can companies or organizations bridge the gap between innovation and action? In other words, when do you stop discussing what could be done and start doing it?
That, in a nutshell, is the challenge of institutionalizing innovation. Whereas innovation has historically been tied to entrepreneurs, it is now being tied to salaried employees who tend to be more risk-averse.
The new breed of innovation professionals that I have encountered can be placed in two categories: innovation custodians and innovation lexicographers. The custodians are a new type of middle manager, meant to oversee the innovators and their processes. The lexicographers are external consultants that will take corporate managers through endless innovation workshops or go on about the aforementioned processes.
Whether de-coupling innovation from entrepreneurship will be successful, has yet to be seen. Organizations that have made that transition successfully have created an internal structure for entrepreneurship, often called intrapreneurship.
5. What companies, organizations or individuals are carrying out the discipline of innovation well or correctly?
I think GE, Apple and Google are examples of organizations that carry out innovation well. I mention these because they are not only successful and base their businesses on innovation, but they use very different mechanisms to innovate.
GE is traditionally driven by its engineers who are able to promote their ideas through the organization. In the early 1980s, GE set up an intrapreneurship program, which allowed the company to create a spin-off and set up a business with GE’s own venture capital while retaining the option to acquire the company later.
Apple, meanwhile, is led by a visionary autocrat, Steve Jobs, who micromanages employees who execute his vision. Alternatively, Apple also acquires companies that serve Jobs’s vision. Apple’s innovations put design first and are centered around picking the right value chain components, letting other companies pioneer the in-depth technological innovation. Apple didn’t invent the PC, the MP3 player or the smartphone. It just tweaked what was valuable to people. This type of soft innovation has proven very cost-effective.
Google applies some of the above but is notorious for their more lax approach. Google employees are allowed to spend 20 percent of their free time to pursue projects of their choice. Some immensely popular projects like Orkut, Google News and even AdSense were conceptualized and developed by Google engineers during their “20 percent time.”
Ultimately, freedom of method might even be an innovation fundamental.
Bonus question: What is your favorite innovation?
It would be wrong to say that I have one preferred innovation. But I am closely following the race to replace cars in cities. There are many fun contraptions, including my top contender for a favorite innovation: the shaft-driven bicycle. The industry will need to continue to improve the current bicycle design. Comfort, finicky gears and oily chains, among other features, will need to be improved or eliminated to encourage more people to start riding and stop driving. Ultimately, however, we will have to give the object that replaces the car the same type of iconic, lifestyle appeal. I am also following the privatized space race, including Burt Rhutan’s spaceship. The revival of airships, such as the ZeppelinNT, is also great to follow.
Jens Martin Skibsted is the founder of Skibsted Ideation and co-founder of the design agency KiBiSi. A native of Denmark, Skibsted studied philosophy with the late Jean-Loup Delamarre at the Sorbonne in France. His bicycle designs are part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City and in San Francisco (SFMoMa) as well as Le Cnap in France. Skibsted has been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, and addressed the Forum’s annual meeting at Davos in 2011. He is a graduate of École Supérieure d’Études Cinématographiques.