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Delayed Innovation Gratification

The hard truth about innovation is that it generally is not an overnight phenomenon. Try more like 2,000 days and nights.

November 29, 2012
Related Topics: Top Stories - Frontpage, HR/Workforce Trends, Organizational Culture, Global Business Issues, Training & Development, Workplace Culture
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We often hear stories about overnight innovation successes. New apps like Draw Something. The Korean pop music hit Gangnam Style. Going back a few years, Silly Bandz.

But the hard truth about innovation is that it generally is not an overnight phenomenon. Try more like 2,000 days and nights, if we're talking about innovations that really move the needle for organizations and entire industries. So says Jerry Hage, co-director of the University of Maryland's Center for Innovation.

Hage argues companies should select four or five high-risk, high-payoff projects and stick with them for five to 10 years. "If you really want great breakthroughs, that's the only way you're going to get it," he says.

Precise formulas for innovative products and processes vary by industry sector, Hage says. But there's one thing he recommends CEOs across the board take pains to avoid—a penny-pinching mindset. In his view, investing in people—including spending on training—is vital to innovation.

"Stop emphasizing productivity and cost," says Hage, author of the 2011 book Restoring the Innovative Edge. "It leads you to think the best thing to do to reduce costs is to fire workers."

Is this a dated philosophy? One that harkens back to the 1940s and '50s when industrial giants could afford to spend millions on long-term projects, as AT&T did at its Bell Labs facility?

I don't think so. Or if it is an old formula, it deserves to be resurrected.

Sure, there are cases where companies or inventors can create a smash hit in virtually no time. And the pace of innovation has no doubt increased in recent decades thanks to better tools and improved communication. But in Hage's view, hard problems related to research and product development still take painstaking amounts of work. And time.

The history of the iPhone seems to be a perfect example. Apple introduced its revolutionary device in 2007. How long did it take to arrive at that novel user experience, including its touch controls, facility for surfing the Web and easy navigation? By one telling, 2½ years. But that time frame focuses just on the development of the iPhone proper. A deeper history shows Steve Jobs was thinking about mobile phones as early as 2002. Including touch-screen work that filtered into the iPhone and a partnership with Motorola that failed commercially but introduced Jobs and his crew to the world of mobile phone carriers, Apple's marvel was more like five years in the making.

So, yes, a new, lightweight Facebook app that your firm dashes off might get hot and boost your revenue for a quarter or two. But if you're talking about heavy-duty innovation that sustains your business for years, plan for the long-haul.

Innovation is really about delayed gratification.

Ed Frauenheim is Workforce's senior editor. Comment below or email efrauenheim@workforce.com.

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