Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dangerous Dichotomies

Prophets and pundits of change often express how the future will be different by using dangerous dichotomies.  

For example, the new economy infers that there is an old one—one that is somehow less attractive.   High tech suggests there is a lower class of technology that might not be as valuable. Revolutionary change can easily infer that evolutionary change may not be aggressive or cool enough. Even the phrase out-of-the-box tends to devalue ideas that might be in the box. While these dichotomies may make for good sound bytes, they can lead the innovator and innovating company astray.

Peter Drucker observed years ago in his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, that contrary to much of what the literature would have us believe, the more reliable sources of innovation are right under our corporate noses: our own successes and failures. Emphasizing how different the future will be, and thus, implying that it will require nothing less than a wholesale change, not only gives the corporate immune system a juicy target; it may not always be the best or most accurate way of describing the emerging future.

Years ago a heralded innovation called oriented strand board (OSB) was touted as a plywood replacement. What happened? Those companies with heavy investments in plywood assets worked harder and smarter to improve plywood, partly in response to the very threat of OSB. The reality that ensued was not the elimination of plywood. Rather we now have both OSB and plywood. This plot line of innovation in an industry has been repeated in other contexts as well. In many cases, the new does not replace the old. Instead, the new and the old co-exist and together, form a new reality. For example, General Electric seems to be more enabled than “disrupted” by its embrace of e-business technology. Perhaps it really is not what the change is, but how you respond to it that makes the difference.

Just as organisms adapt to their surroundings in order to survive and succeed, so organizations must do likewise. Innovation is simply the complex set of activities that make up that adaptation process. Even though the economist Schumpeter said that innovation is both the creator and destroyer of corporations, it seems that this is but another dangerous dichotomy about innovation itself.

Yes we need to be open to the new, but not to the extent that we disregard or denigrate the old. The innovation management challenge for the established corporation is to both improve the existing and embrace the new.  

Managing innovation with purpose and perspective requires more finesse with the subtleties of emerging and current realities than dichotomies would otherwise lead us to believe.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in June 2002. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 460-1313. 

No comments:

Post a Comment