As all of us working on innovation know, it’s quite an opaque topic that many innovators and organizations don’t talk about openly. As a result, innovation is an area that’s fraught with many common myths and misconceptions.
That’s unfortunate, because those less experienced in innovation often end up going about it all wrong, and as a result, we as customers, and as a society, get less bang for our buck – and have to deal with challenges that could’ve already been solved.
At Viima, we’re working hard to democratize innovation, and today’s post is a natural way for us to further that mission. We’ll be covering 21 common myths and misconceptions about innovation that we often come across in our discussions with people in the field, some more common than others.
Myths are intriguing, because there’s usually a very logical reason for their birth, and if you are able to really understand that rationale, it unlocks a much deeper understanding of the topic itself.
So, in this post, we’ll talk about where they come from, what the actual reality is, and point you to resources where you can learn more about the topics behind them. This will be quite a long one, so if you’re just looking for a quick summary, you may want to check this infographic first.
But, without further ado, let’s get to these myths and misconceptions on innovation.
1. Innovation can’t be taught or learnt
Innovation is, of course, difficult, and it usually feels a bit overwhelming when you’re first getting started with it, or even just starting to work on a new innovation project. So, when you see someone who’s great at it, and seemingly effortlessly keeps coming up with brilliant out of the box ideas, it’s easy and natural to attribute that virtuosity to them just being born with it.
When you combine that with the fact that there isn’t really a foolproof recipe or process you can use to succeed at innovation every time, even though there are good practices that can be very helpful, it does make sense that people think this way. We hear, all too often, innovation being talked about as a kind of a mysterious art that can’t be taught or learnt. You just have it, or you don’t.
While some people certainly have more natural tendencies towards innovation than others, and it’s true that there isn’t a foolproof recipe for success in innovation, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t learn it.
Innovation is part science and part art. This combination of logical thinking, problem solving, creativity, empathy, and practical skills is difficult for most people. Many are great at some of the aforementioned, but very few at all of them naturally. However, that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t teach them, or learn to get better at each of these areas.
Many are great at some of the skills needed for innovation, but very few at all of them naturally. However, that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t teach them, or learn to get better at each of these areas.
Once you have that covered, it’s simply a matter of figuring out what the areas are that you’re lacking in, and then putting in the practice of trying to make innovation happen, as well as working on those individual skills needed for achieving that – or in the context of a team, finding others to complement your skills. But more on that later.
2. Innovations are these big breakthrough inventions
Probably one of the most common myths and misconceptions we come across is that people think that if something isn’t a big technological breakthrough or a patentable invention, it isn’t “real innovation”.
That is understandable, given how we have countless definitions for the term, and how the media often uses it in misleading ways. Generally speaking, innovation is typically used to refer to just big technological breakthroughs.
In addition, many large organizations have a long history of being super R&D focused with their innovation work, which has led to innovations and patents being virtually synonymous. Again, this is very understandable given how historically these have been so closely linked.
In reality, this is one of the biggest misconceptions that hold people and organizations back from driving real results with innovation.
By definition, innovation is “the introduction of anything new”. So, any new process, or even a change to an existing one, is an innovation. Any incremental improvement to an existing product or service is an innovation. And of course, any technological breakthrough or disruptive new business model is also an innovation. But, if you only count patents as innovations, and focus all of your effort into getting those, odds are you’re not getting the best bang for your innovation buck.
If you, for example look at the ten types of innovation framework, which I find very helpful, you can see that most of them aren’t technical by nature, and most of them certainly won’t be patentable – at least in a defensible way.More and more, we see that the most innovative companies obsess about improving their pace of innovation, not just about patents or big breakthrough technologies. And this more holistic understanding of what innovation is, is what really drives a large portion of their success.
3. Only creative geniuses can innovate
This myth is actually very much a continuum of the very first one. The media loves to tell stories about heroic individuals and geniuses, so that’s why we tend to have this misconception of all the innovation in the world happening by a few Elon Musks and Steve Jobses.
These people supposedly just have that magical something that allows them to come up with wild game-changing ideas that then turn into those big breakthrough innovations we all love to talk about. For the rest of us, it’s not even worth trying.
Well, as you may have guessed, this is a case of massive exaggeration and oversimplification.
It’s certainly true that there are people who are better at innovation than others. All you need to do is look at the track record of people like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Nikola Tesla, and many others. There have been, and still are, great innovators that are capable of things most of us can only dream of. However, there are a couple of big ‘buts’ here.
The first is, as we’ve just learned, that there’s a lot more to innovation than those big breakthroughs. You can certainly do all kinds of innovation that drives tons of business value, as we’ve just talked about, without being a genius – or even being widely regarded as a great innovator. Pretty much every company has these people that aren’t happy with the status quo and are capable of making things better.The second is that there’s of course a lot more to the success of those famous innovators than first meets the eye. This is an extensive topic, so I won’t go into detail here, but they’ve for example all put in countless hours of hard work and went through numerous iterations before succeeding. It’s not just about them being geniuses. Also, all three of our examples have attracted funding, talent, and other great innovators to join them.
In modern times, it is teams that accomplish the biggest breakthroughs, not lone inventors. There’s much more to innovation success than just an idea. Which actually brings us to our next point.
4. Innovation is a solo activity
As we just covered, many people still mistakenly think that innovation happens as a result of the work of these great innovators who hunker up in the lab and then come up with brilliant ideas that change everything, and that teams and organizations only hold them back.
As with most of our other myths, there is a grain of truth here as well.
As mentioned, it’s of course true that some people are much better at coming up with innovative ideas than others. It’s also true that if you set up a workshop to come up with ideas or solve challenging problems, the ideas and solutions that you’ll usually end up with are just the average of everyone’s opinion, which are almost always worthless.
So, ideation is typically best done as a solo activity, but as mentioned, there’s a long way to go from an idea to an innovation, and that is the implementation and execution of said ideas.
Ideation is usually best approached as a solo activity, but innovation definitely isn’t.
In today’s complex world, it’s incredibly rare for someone to possess all the skills required to implement most innovations – and to also have the time and the resources to actually do all of that.
So, while ideation is usually best approached as a solo activity, innovation definitely isn’t.
5. Innovation happens from the top-down
Again, thanks to the success stories we hear about in the media and in our networks, we often think that innovation has to be led from the top-down with every CEO being the figurative Elon Musk of their own business – capable of coming up with these breakthrough ideas one after the other and then putting them together into a coherent vision and steering the implementation work across all levels of the company according to a pre-defined plan.
While it is true that top-down innovation can be a very effective method, especially for startups and nascent businesses within large organizations where focus is critical, it does require world-class leadership (which most organizations don’t have) and is almost impossible to scale beyond a certain point.
Also, in reality, while innovation is always led-from the top by leaders setting targets and empowering their teams, in any truly innovative work, management will never have all the answers in advance. So, for medium and large organizations, pure top-down innovation just doesn’t work.
Innovation should be led from the top, but it still happens outside the board room.
As mentioned, that doesn’t mean that top management shouldn’t have a clear (innovation) strategy in place, nor that they shouldn’t make decisions related to it or guide the work, they absolutely have to do all of the above.
It just means that most of the ideation, problem-solving and actual implementation of innovation, and thus the majority of decisions related to that, do – or at least should – happen outside the board room.
6. You can’t lead or manage innovation
While not as common as it used to be, this still comes up in our discussions every now and then.
Some people, typically those who consider themselves to be creative or innovative, do argue that you can’t force, manage, or lead innovation. It just comes naturally when you have a bunch of creative people and then give them time, resources and freedom.
Others might even say that innovation is just random.
As with so many other myths, this one also has a grain of truth in it. We never come up with our best ideas at gunpoint, or in workshops where someone asks us to come up with brilliant ideas.
However, as the famous innovator Thomas Edison said, genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, and the same certainly holds true for innovation.
That inspiration part is certainly difficult to manage in a predictable way, but just giving the right stimuli and prerequisites for that to happen is actually what a good manager does, so that too can indeed be managed.
And for that other 99%, capable leadership and the right management processes are absolutely vital for giving the team the best chance of succeeding and actually driving value with those brilliant ideas.
Good management can’t guarantee innovation, but it certainly improves your odds of succeeding.
So, if you hear this argument come up, consider the source and their incentives for the statement.
7. Innovation is always a purely positive thing
Innovation is universally considered a good thing. It drives value for customers, businesses, the economy, and the society at large.
With that background, many seem to think that there really isn’t anything negative about it.
As we already discussed, innovation is simply the introduction of anything new, so it isn’t inherently good or bad – it can be either.
When someone introduces something new into the world, it’s typically good for at least themselves, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have done it and that’s the root cause for this fundamental bias.
However, there often are unanticipated consequences for innovation, some of which are likely to be undesirable, at least for some of the stakeholders.Let’s take a couple of examples.
The introduction of a new automated process can save the company a lot of money and make the innovator look good within the company, but at the same time leave a number of people without a job. Sometimes they can be retrained for other, more value adding roles within the organization, but they might also be laid off, which obviously isn’t great for them.
The invention of the internal combustion engine has created immense value for humanity by increasing the mobility of people and goods, but it has also led to undesirable consequences for the environment, and thus society.
So, when you really think of any meaningful innovation, it almost always has negative consequences for some stakeholders, be it employees, customers, the environment, the society, or at least your competitors.
In most cases, innovation is without a doubt a net positive, so please keep pursuing it, but be mindful of the consequences it will have!
8. Innovation isn’t for everyone
On the other end of the spectrum, we also hear some argue that innovation isn’t something every company should do, and that for many it’s completely fine to choose not to innovate and instead focus on other things, for example lowering costs or operational efficiency.
It is true that it doesn’t necessarily make sense for a lot of companies to be investing in those big breakthrough technologies innovations.
They might, for example, not have the perseverance, talent, resources, or just have their work cut out in trying to make the most out of their previous innovation.
However, this is where we come back to the definition of innovation. While not everyone should be working on disruptive technologies or new business models, every organization should absolutely be focused on at least doing incremental innovation.
Even if your focus is on lowering costs or increasing operational efficiency, innovation can play a big role in achieving those goals. Innovation is a not a goal in and of itself, it’s a tool for accomplishing the objectives of your organization.
If you, as an organization, don’t introduce anything new to your products, services, or processes, you’re simply going to die.
If you, as an organization, don’t introduce anything new to your products, services, or processes, you’re simply going to die. It’s just a matter of when. Every company has to innovate to stay relevant. The real question, then, is what kind of innovation makes sense for your business.
9. Innovation should be centralized to an R&D department or an innovation lab
Another common misconception executives often have is that it’s their R&D department’s or innovation lab’s responsibility to make innovation happen.
The implication of that misconception is that no one else outside of those departments should have to think about innovation, and that these (often small) units should just be able to churn out one innovation after the other.
This approach is typically backed with arguments like the business units not having the time to focus on innovation, them not understanding it, or being good at it.
Again, all of the reasons stated above can be perfectly valid. However, that doesn’t mean the proposed solution is perfect.
We’ve seen a lot of different roles for R&D organizations in creating innovation, but there’s one thing they all have in common: the innovations never stay in R&D or the innovation lab.
This is a complicated topic, and we’ve written about in more detail here, but the fact of the matter is that if you want to be a top performing innovator, you can’t rely on centralized innovation alone.
There’s a number of reasons for that, but in essence, a decentralized approach provides you with a lot more bandwidth, is much more scalable, helps in aligning the innovations with customer value, and has the resources and capabilities required to actually introduce the innovations to the market.
A decentralized approach provides you with a lot more bandwidth, is much more scalable, helps in aligning the innovations with customer value, and has the resources and capabilities required to actually introduce the innovations to the market.
Having said that, as most large organizations do have R&D departments and innovation labs, they should certainly play a big role in the innovation process – you just can’t expect a lab to do all of the innovation for the entire organization. The only time that can work is if you set the bar super low, and that’s not what anyone should strive for.
10. Innovation is done by engineers or designers
Many people have a tendency to play down their own ability to innovate if they don’t have an engineering or design degree, and some even extend this to apply to others as well.
So, the myth is that it’s only engineers and designers that can innovate, and that your run of the mill businessperson or front-line employee just couldn’t hope to do the same and that it’s best to leave innovation to those who know what they’re doing.
It is true that the majority of the great inventors throughout history do have an engineering background, and that of course makes sense. Engineers, and to some extent designers, are by background better suited to solve technical challenges an