Is innovation overrated? Here is how to separate myths from facts

what is innovation
Gaia Grant


written on September 4, 2016

Innovation must be one of the most highly rated values in business today, which mean it has become a bit of a buzzword. But what is innovation? More importantly, is it worth the hype?

When you look at the mission statements of the world’s top 25 most valuable brands, including Microsoft, IBM and Nike, 25 per cent include the word ‘innovation’. Many companies now have innovation departments, senior innovation leadership positions and specially purposed ‘innovation hubs’. But there is still confusion about what is innovation, and whether or not it lives up to expectations. Is it really as important as everyone seems to think it is?

No point paying lip service

While most companies are busy trying to add innovation into their mission statement, one human resources manager we have worked with convinced her executive team to take it out of theirs. She felt it was not really a defining principle for the way their company operated, and instead they needed to be honest about what they were and weren’t focusing on, or doing effectively.

There is no point simply paying lip service to innovation, but when you understand what innovation is and implement it effectively, it can make a huge difference to an organisation.

Forward-thinking leaders are certainly coming around to recognising its value.

A recent leadership survey of 1500 CEOs by IBM (that covered 60 countries and more than 33 different industries) revealed that 81 per cent of the CEOs surveyed rated innovation as a crucial capability for the future. What’s more, innovative thinking ranked the highest out of all leadership qualities surveyed.

Companies that innovate effectively thrive

The facts are clear: A focus on innovation does lead to better individual motivation and morale, improved employee performance and better organisational performance.

Bain and Company surveyed 450 companies and found that the top ones on measures of innovation had better employee engagement, better productivity (up to 50 per cent more) and better decision-making effectiveness.

Bain’s specific assessment of corporate decision-making effectiveness showed that those in the top quartile were better (in terms of speed, effort involved, quality and yield) at both making and executing decisions. In turn, better decision making impacted strategy, project selection and organisational alignment.

Organisations thrive when they are innovative, and growth typically follows. Companies that focus on innovation usually do well financially. The top 25 per cent of the most innovative companies grow more than twice as fast as the others (13 per cent growth compared with 5 per cent growth). When compounded over five years, this amounts to almost three times more growth.

Authentic innovation makes the difference

What is the message for human resources managers? By all means, focus on innovation, but don’t just pay lip service to the concept – find ways to integrate the value into all levels of the organisation as an authentic value that drives attitudes and actions.

Four ways that human resources can help answer the ‘what is innovation’ question are to:

  • Develop innovative thinking through targeted training and development programs;
  • Establish innovation processes by introducing and establishing workable models for innovation;
  • Encourage innovative practices and outcomes through special innovation workshop sessions; and
  • Ensure that innovative ideas are supported and nurtured appropriately from ideation right through to implementation.

Be prepared for more open thinking, more radical ideas, more daring risk taking, and ultimately a more vibrantly innovative and successful organisation.

Gaia Grant is the author of The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game (Wiley August 2016) along with a number of other international bestselling books and resources.

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9 thoughts on “Is innovation overrated? Here is how to separate myths from facts

  1. The most challenging part about innovation is not coming up with innovation, but protecting it from competitors. Many an organisation with wonderful ideas have brought them to market only to find themselves competing with unscrupulous copy cats before recovering R&D expenses let alone making a profit. Unless there is a very carefully crafted strategy and deep financial resources available to drop-kick competitors, innovation can drive the business out of business no matter how wonderful HR prepares the people for innovation.

    1. We find there can be blocks to innovation all along the line: from the initial inspiration and ideation phase all the way through to innovation implementation. Protection from competitors is certainly a big issue in the final implementation phase!

  2. There is wisdom to these recommendations for HR. There is far too much talk about innovation and not enough focus on how we shape more innovative organizations or build the skills and capacity of people to innovate.
    HR provides oversight on all people management strategies – do they encourage people to be innovative?
    L&D should explore problem solving and innovative thinking skills – this is more than a workshop. It should be a learning platform.
    Internal comm should carefully define these terms to get rid of the jargon and cliches…and simplify. Stop using the term ‘innovation’ when you are talking about ideas. Use the full range of communication tools to talk the innovation talk.
    OD and HR can create opportunities for people solve common challenges. Call it a staff ideas conference or a Hack…same thing.
    Eventually, people have the skills and confidence to improve their own work – most ideas in all organizations flow from people working on their day to day challenges. This buiilds the skills and capacity to innovate.

    1. Good points thanks Ed – wholeheartedly agree. There are so many different elements to the innovation process, and if there is not a sustainable culture to support innovation over the long term new ideas can flounder and fail.

  3. Training and development can’t do anything untill and unless employees can deploy their freshly gained skill in an environment that supports innovation. Culture of an organizaion plays an important role in it. HR has a big role to play to cultivate tha. Right from the recruitment to engagement and also exit of the employees, the practices will determine how innovation friendly the culture is.

  4. Innovation is a state of mind, not something which can be achieved by writing the word in a statement. Just telling people you are ‘innovating’ means nothing – to do so is actually a distraction from getting on and doing it. I have found that most innovation that truly delivers lasting beneficial effect comes from asking experienced employees what they think, and a healthy interest in what the rest of the world is doing – perhaps epitomised by this writer (a senior HR director within the UK Royal Marines) taking an interest in the thoughts of the wider HR community. From these blogs, comments, and visits to private sector HR departments our team distills useful ideas that ARE applicable to military organisations, despite initial differences. We are all people, after all.

    1. Thanks for your insights from your field Aldeiy. There is definitely great value in opening up to broad perspectives and ideas and distilling them to find what’s relevant and applicable in your area.

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