At last, the secret to successful business innovation


To be successful, most business leaders need to appear innovative without engineering substantive change.


Scientists unsuccessfully studied Albert Einstein’s brain for more than 50 years hoping to find the key to his genius.

Time magazine’s “Person of the (20th) Century, “Albert Einstein , died in 1955. Within seven hours, physicians removed his brain. Various scientists received pieces of it in hopes that thorough examination would illuminate the keys to his genius. No insights were ever revealed.

In the same way, management experts relentlessly examine successful businesses and their leaders trying to isolate and harness the keys to innovation. That’s because innovation is now widely assumed to be the god particle of both profitability and sustainability.

God particle or Holy Grail?

Actually, looking for the secret to being an innovative company is more like searching for the Holy Grail and Fountain of Youth. All three are pure fantasies.

Innovative organization is an oxymoron. People can be innovative. By definition, organizations are not. The purpose of organizing is to establish systems, standards, protocols and processes that will enable a group to achieve a goal. Like a molecule that exists only because it holds atoms together in stable form, an organization’s future is threatened rather than sustained when one or more atoms decides to go in a new direction.

For-profit companies need to grow, not innovate. For a few, innovation is crucial to growth. For most, innovation (in other words, disrupting what they do well) is what gives their leaders nightmares.

Smart people don’t reinvent the wheel

The keys to innovation are mythical like the Holy Grail.

King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail (the Monty Python version) ended in futility when he and his knights were ambushed by a killer rabbit. Business people seeking the keys to innovation may realize a similar fate.

Sages of the everyone must innovate movement point to envied enterprises that rocketed to the top by changing the way people do things and (by the way) have luscious market valuations to show for it. The causes of each success story are unique and complex, but share price rarely benefits from nuanced understanding.

Buzzwords are more effective than facts for establishing consensus on marketplace winners and losers. For the last 20 years, “innovative” has been the go-to buzzword for companies vying for an A-list reputation. Naturally, the innovation evangelist industry has flourished as technology vendors, consultants, advertising and public relations agencies, recruiters and others compete to deliver out-of-the-box solutions.

The truth is that innovators fail more often than they succeed. The literature on why companies should avoid innovation is more valid — if less voluminous and dramatic — than the exhortations for it.

Ohio State University business professor Oded Shenkar, author of Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation To Gain a Strategic Edge stated the essential fact:

Imitators make more money than innovators.

In the real world of management and competition, companies only innovate (change themselves) in response to crisis. All companies!


Bell Laboratories researchers (l to r) John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain posed agreeably in 1948 while inventing the transistor, thereby launching the digital age. Although the 1956 Nobel Prize was given to all three, none of them wanted to share the credit nor earned royalties from patents. Shockley set up shop in Palo Alto, CA, in 1951 where he launched the careers of Silicon Valley patriarchs, inchuding Intel founders Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, who could not abide his domineering, paranoid and erratic management style. Those ‘cultures of innovation’ differ from the ideals espoused by modern gurus, but they innovated much more than the latest social app.

You do not have to (or want to) be an innovative organization to make and sell innovative products. That just requires hiring and holding talented people, and giving them the tools they need. From 1925 – 2000, the Bell Laboratories team employed the technology innovation equivalents of Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Dan Marino, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus … you get the picture … all in one place. Its scientists garnered 13 Nobel Prizes. Its 32,000 patents include the fax (1925), transistor (1947), solar battery (1954), laser (1958) and cellular technology (1962) among an amazing list of things everyone uses every day.

How innovative was the company? It was the arm of a monopoly, the original AT&T (Ma Bell). Its salaried innovators devised things that both changed the world and created trillions of dollars worth of wealth. Quite often, the inventors waived their royalty rights just to be able to work at the world-famous “Idea Factory.” Because AT&T stifled free enterprise (the mythical seedbed of innovation) the U.S. Department of Justice tore it apart in 1982. Though not what it used to be, Bell Labs lives on as division on Alcatel-Lucent. More importantly, most of the supposedly revolutionary and disruptive technologies we worship today are nothing more than enhancements to or direct descendants of work sponsored by the biggest, most rigid company in history.

The secret is to look and sound innovative

For companies needing to be known as innovative, the key is simple. Just think about the phrase “New and Improved”. It has saturated advertising for at more than 150 years. Although it has been doublespeak* from day one, it remains every huckster’s go-to euphemism for making people think their products are innovative. Two weeks ago, the Central Intelligence Agency jumped on the bandwagon. According to Director John Brennan in a June 24 news release:

“The (agency’s) new and improved website reflects CIA’s strong commitment to educating and informing the American people about the Agency’s history, mission, and organization.”

That’s the only kind of innovation most companies need. The secret is to look sound and feel innovative without really risking anything. Never forget that real innovation is fraught with risks.

* If I said meaningless doublespeak, that would be meaningless doublespeak, but I could not resist sneaking that in.

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