Nov 2008

Innovation beyond the buzzword

Although it is true that not all innovations come out of innovative companies, innovative companies consistently innovate. And they are able to consistently innovate due to their innovation culture.

Many companies market themselves as being innovative, and in many cases, that is all there is, a marketing claim. Innovation has become a popular buzzword. Being called innovative is fashionable. Read many companies' marketing brochures and annual reports, and it is not too hard to find references to self-proclaimed innovation.

But being truly innovative is in the eye of the beholder, as evidenced by result. An “innovative” product or service that does not meet customers' need is hardly innovative. It is either the wrong time, the wrong interpretation, the wrong market, or any combination of the above. For example, a scientist discovers a new compound to treat an incurable disease, but the side effect of the treatment is so adverse that the drug would never get approved. Or an engineer invents a new super cool gadget, but the manufacturing cost is too prohibitively expensive. In both examples, the innovations do not materialise.

Innovative product or service comes from the practice of innovation. To produce innovations consistently, companies need to pervasively embed the practice of innovation in every day life of the organisation. In other words, they need to make it into an innovation culture.

The following discussion explores some key aspects of innovation culture.

Unified leadership

At the heart of every corporate culture is the culture of the leadership team — they greatly influence how their corporate culture shapes over time. Leadership team that is passionately unified in their attitude toward innovation behaviours will foster middle management that behaves likewise. And in turn, the middle managers will manage their teams accordingly. And in tough times, leadership team needs to fight off the tendency to halt or cut back innovation initiatives.

Big picture view

Innovation culture is about the whole company, not just the Research and Development department or the Marketing department, etc, etc. Innovation is sustainable when the company as a whole thinks and breathes innovation. Heroic effort from some people may be able to to produce an innovative product or service, but if the rest of the company does not live the innovation culture, they will slow down the rate of further innovations.

Continuous learning

The world does not stand still and competition does not disappear in the face of innovation. Competitors respond to each other and will try to out-innovate the last innovation. Once a company shakes the industry with its innovation, the rest of the industry responds, and the cycle does not stop. The question is, who is going to come out and remain on top?

Listening mindset

Given the true measure of innovation is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, sensitivity to “listen” to the customer is imperative. Listen to what the customers say and do not say, and what they do and do not do. “Listening” is a discipline that everyone in the organisation need to engage in.


At the heart of a consistently-innovative company is the ability to execute well. A brilliant idea alone does not make an awesome product or service. What good is a product that wins accolades from critics, but despised by customers due to poor quality? What good is a unique service if it cannot be replicated or scaled up to satisfy clients? This is indeed the ingredient that is often missing: being innovative to execute well.

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