The Innovative Enterprise: Losing Sight of the Job?


Think about this one. When is the last time you went to a tech/business conference and you didn't hear someone say something like, "Innovation is everyone's job." It might have been back in some year that began with 199x. Of course, today, speakers feel the need to insert "with data" into the mandate.

I'm sick of nodding along like the doggie bobblehead in the rear window of a car on the highway. I have to disagree. Yes, data is playing an important role in all of our lives, so everyone should use it. Yes, everyone in an organization should be welcomed into the innovation kumbaya circle. But, no, not everyone should be required to innovate. Plus, people who aren't in a position to innovate shouldn't be cast into the fires of Human Resources Hell because they don't generate great ideas.

Plenty of people in almost every organization need to be judged simply on whether they do their jobs well.

Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

In my job I have had the pleasure of meeting and listening to an awful lot of very smart, very accomplished, and very interesting people. Inventors, entrepreneurs, educators, authors, scientists, even the occasional smart politician. Yes, you could say that most of them were innovators. However, a lot of them were plain folks going about their jobs, but able to share great insight.

One was a retired US Navy chief petty officer that I interviewed many years ago. He had done his 30 years around the Vietnam War era, and was getting on with the rest of his life. He dropped in an interesting observation on why people opt to extend their initial enlistment period into a lifetime in the military.

Beyond the obvious patriotic reasons, for some military people there's a comfort level in being career service, he said. Life in the military limits the need to make some hard decisions, he noted. You don't go looking for a new job, it's pretty much assigned to you. You don't go looking for a place to live; that comes with the assignment, and is accompanied by healthcare and school choice, even where to shop. The military loves structure, and some people thrive in such structure. The fact is that our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard need hundreds of thousands of such people who want to fit into a structured role, get assigned tasks, and follow orders without question.

Of course, there is plenty of need for innovation in the military, even to the point where if you don't innovate you might die. Consider the saying of the Marines, "improvise, adapt, and overcome." But I also could envision the type of person that the chief was describing. I've worked with hundreds of such people, and they weren't just former military. They did their jobs every day, and they were valuable.

His thoughts stuck with me throughout the years in supervising people and learning about modern management practices, including the one practice I really hated: The top 10% (or some other percentage) of your people -- those with great ideas -- get the "big" raises, while the bottom 10% get put on performance plan with no hope of recovering. Everyone in the middle, "Eh!" Machiavelli would have loved that one.

I've been wondering if our focus on getting everyone on board with innovation to -- here we go -- "Drive the company forward" overlooks the fact that someone still has to bake the bread, care for the patient, fix the washing machine, or code the website.

For many valuable employees, their use of data is reflected not in innovation on their own part, but in things like how the new trouble ticketing system makes their workday better, how best practices direct patient care, or a navigation system guides their truck around a traffic jam. It helps them do their jobs better.

The mandate to innovate through data has turned sour in a way, laying guilt on those who do good work and have no desire to spend their days thinking of the next great idea. Instead, that mandate really should be imposed on corporate leaders and line managers, calling for them to embrace data-driven decision making and to look for, welcome and reward innovative ideas. Such ideas might emerge from an analytics project or percolate up from a comment like, "Hey, boss, there has to be a better way to do this..." Hey, that's innovation in action.

So, my question to you: Will the company of 10 years from now still have a place for a core of workers who are simply focused on doing a good job in the job that they are assigned?

James M. Connolly, Editor of All Analytics

Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editor of All Analytics he writes about the move to big data analytics and data-driven decision making. Over the years he has covered enterprise computing, the PC revolution, client/server, the evolution of the Internet, the rise of web-based business, and IT management. He has covered breaking industry news and has led teams focused on product reviews and technology trends. Throughout his tech journalism career, he has concentrated on serving the information needs of IT decision-makers in large organizations and has worked with those managers to help them learn from their peers and share their experiences in implementing leading-edge technologies through publications including Computerworld. Jim also has helped to launch a technology-focused startup, as one of the founding editors at TechTarget, and has served as editor of an established news organization focused on technology startups and the Boston-area venture capital sector at MassHighTech. A former crime reporter for the Boston Herald, he majored in journalism at Northeastern University.

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Re: Good performers, innovators, and disruptors
  • 9/27/2017 11:39:08 AM
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Jim/Lyndon its a statement on staying in control of your market when the disruptors become disrupted it shows that they were missing something in their strategic view of the market. Amazon is already changing Whole food and I am excited to see how they will shift its profitability and leverage its bricks to grow their imprint on grocery. I am still hoping that cable disruption becomes more widespread I am in the Northeast and I am facing incredible cable bills with little increase in service levels.

Re: Good performers, innovators, and disruptors
  • 9/27/2017 10:29:28 AM
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@Lyndon. Good point about how "disruptors" themselves are getting disrupted (Whole Foods, the cable TV sector, etc.). I wonder how that disruption is being received by people in those companies. Let's face it, there has been a bit of a snob factor among disruptors. It's not a new thing (minicomputer and PC manufacturers were disruptors as well, and most of them are long gone), but the mindset is becoming more common in the Internet age.

It's evidenced by an attitude that says, "We're really smart, and those people doing things the old fashioned way are really dumb." Then the really smart disruptors end up in the unemployment ranks right next to those "really dumb" people when a new disruptor comes along.

Re: Good performers, innovators, and disruptors
  • 9/27/2017 9:31:48 AM
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..

Jim writes

... I like that distinction between "disruption" and "innovation". I think a lot of the talk about innovation is focused more on disruption.

I notice that Jessica's recent blog article Competing on Analytics: 2017 makes some points relevant to this discussion of "disruption".

She points out that the recent SAS Analytics Experience event in Washington DC included a session called "Taking Advantage of Technology Disruption".

Jessica argues:

Let's be clear. If you are a business today, you want to be the disruptor, not the disrupted. Disruptors are the companies that are equated with competing on analytics. For instance, analytics has famously helped organizations such as Amazon, Uber, and Netflix disrupt entire industries. It's great if you are the disruptor. If you are one of the incumbent companies that has been disrupted -- Blockbuster Video, Borders Books, or any taxi driver -- it's not so great.

As enterprise organizations aspire to disrupt rather than be disrupted, they are embracing the idea of competing on analytics. So companies such as Gillette are looking at the lessons dealt by disruptors such as Dollar Shave Club and figuring out how to incorporate such disruptor-inspired, analytics-driven strategies into their own competitive strategies.

Sounds to me like we all need to prepare ourselves for an awful lot of disruption. Hopefully, much of it will be beneficial.

It's also been fascinating to see some of the disruptors getting disrupted (such as Netflix, Whole Foods, cable TV industry, to name a few). Sort of like watching hurricane Harvey hit a marina, and seeing some boats sink while others remain floating ...

..

Re: Why Innovate? Free R&D
  • 9/27/2017 1:44:41 AM
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Beverly, despite what I may have said before about innovation, I'll take the grapes and the fanning. That would a sweet 15 minutes of fame!

Re: It Depends
  • 9/26/2017 6:18:15 PM
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Broadway innovation comes in all forms and packages, so I am not ready to get rid of the big innovation concept. I would say that there are categories of innovation. For jobs in the future, there is no doubt some will be replaced by automation, some by lack of need others because jobs will morph into more comprehensive roles. Time will tell as it all plays out, but I do foresee the economy needing more well-rounded flexible employees at senior levels.

Re: It Depends
  • 9/26/2017 1:32:21 PM
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Every job requires some degree of innovation. Not all steps in a process always goes as expected or anticipated, so when the unanticipated comes along innovation is the way forward. That being said, a primary is put on the employee that can apply vision beyond the designed process and can improve or navigate through it efficiently. So doing a good job is completing it successfully. Whatever it took.

Why Innovate? Free R&D
  • 9/26/2017 7:35:51 AM
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@Jim - Great post! During my journey, I have found that innovation is pushed by management because they get to leverage skills, knowledge and abilities for basically nothing more than what they are already spending. If as an employee, you develop a technology, approach or method that either saves the company money or makes the company money, you will get a plastic star, employee of the week kudos and a few extra bucks as a bonus. Your self-esteem is boosted and for a brief period of time, your coworkers will fan you and feed you grapes. In the process your boss has received some shares of stock, a huge dollar bonus and perhaps new contracts using your idea. And what did it cost them? Nada. Oh and by the way, the company owns the intellectual property rights to whatever you innovated as their employee (you should read those offer letters very carefully > allanalytics.com/author.asp?section_id=1828&doc_id=275105)

Don't get me wrong, I've had a good idea or two over the decades and enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame here and there.  But to your point, over the long haul, if you just come in and do your job faithfully, that is what people will remember about you.

Re: It Depends
  • 9/26/2017 12:08:09 AM
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PredictableChaos, I understand that. I suppose what I'm suggesting is two part: that innovation can be found in those daily decisions and they can build to some big changes in processes. And two, that those big innovations are largely myth.

Re: Different ways to innovate
  • 9/25/2017 11:47:19 PM
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Tomsg I agree innovation can be a new way of creating or manufacturing something that exists today and improving efficiencies. So many only think of innovation as a new invention but it can be applied to process as well as products.

Re: Good performers, innovators, and disruptors
  • 9/25/2017 4:58:16 PM
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..

Jim writes

I think a lot of the talk about innovation is focused more on disruption. So, if innovation is about doing today's job better (suggesting a new approach to trouble ticketing) and preparing for the future, maybe disruption is striving to be the next uber (creating a new business model).

Both are important, but for most workers, innovation (as defined above) is the priority. 

It seems to me that there's constructive, creative, beneficial disruption, and disruption just for its own sake, or to shake things up and make a fast buck while society tries to sort out the confusion.

I will note that London Transport seems to have gotten rather irritated by the degree of Uber's disruption and has revoked the company's operating license, citing deficiencies in meeting public service and safety requirements.

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