Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Imperfect Innovation

I've been thinking a lot about the juxtaposition of innovation in our expectations for perfection.  Modern business has high expectations of its people and its processes.  Process improvement and Six Sigma have led us to expect exceptionally low rates of imperfection, variance or failure.  When managers talk about their teams they refer to "flawless" execution of day to day tasks.  The concept of perfection is an interesting one, especially in the rough and tumble world of business.  Let's look briefly at some of the definitions of the word "perfect":

a being entirely without fault or defect : flawless perfect
b : satisfying all requirements : accurate
c : corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept perfect

When our business processes work as designed, and when our products meet or exceed customer expectation, we may describe the results as "perfect".  But if we are honest with ourselves, everything in business is simply a striving for perfection.  There are too many constraints, limits and tradeoffs in any process or product to create a "perfect" solution, yet that doesn't stop many from trying.  We even have a saying attributed to Voltaire to reflect this thinking:  don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.   Yet executives and cultures set high expectations of execution and result, expecting if not perfection, then something awfully close.  After all, true Six Sigma is 3.4 errors in 1 million products or operations.  This is a standard difficult to achieve and difficult to sustain, in processes and products that are well-understood, in which the firm is deeply experienced.  So what does this striving for perfection do to innovation?

The Imperfect Science

Innovation is frequently the opposite of perfection.  If we are honest, innovation is risky, variable, full of errors and "failures" that may ultimately lead to new successes.  Innovation fails the first definition of perfect, because innovation will frequently create errors or defects.  If you have a flawless innovation process, then your focus is too incremental, too same, too constrained.  As they say about skiing, if you aren't falling occasionally, you aren't trying hard enough.  Innovation clearly fails the third definition as well, in that most organizations don't have a "standard" for innovation processes or outcomes.  Without a standard, how can innovation be measured?  How can we claim success?

Not only is innovation an imperfect science, it is more effective and returns greater value in its imperfection.  Exploration, experimentation, cross-fertilization, learning from mistakes and incorporating new learning is critical to innovation success, and seems far less than perfect to an organization trained in Six Sigma near perfection.  Perfection is about constantly honing deep and well-practiced skills.  Innovation is usually about discovering new tools, new methods and unexpected or unarticulated needs.  There's little perfection in innovation, other than the realization that innovation is messy, imperfect but vital for growth and differentiation.

The ultimate conundrum

Here resides the ultimate conundrum:  in organizations that strive for flawless execution, that hope for perfection in processes and products, that measure failure and error several decimal places to the right of the dot, what place does an intentionally imperfect, highly variable, messy and uncertain process take?  Don't the anti-bodies of the "perfect" organization work to reject the imperfect processes, or worse, attach themselves to the imperfect work and seek to adjust their operations to become more like the perfect operations and outcomes?  

On the whole, you'll be better off if the anti-bodies actively reject innovation and its messy, imperfect ways, because that rejection will be obvious.  When the perfect anti-bodies co-opt the innovation activities, that's when the real trouble starts, because what appears to be innovation simply becomes a perfected, rigid process structured to deliver near perfect results, which may please internal processes and expectations but will fail to deliver value.  While internal metrics and measures value perfection, customers, consumers and channels value solutions that address unmet needs.  Those solutions require new discovery, changes to processes, trial and error, learning from mistakes.  Truly new products and services don't emerge from perfect processes, but from discovery, experimentation, failure and new insights.  

We innovators need to help organizations embrace imperfect innovation processes which will yield better, more interesting ideas, and help executives balance two almost mutually exclusive concepts - the near perfect day to day operations, flawless and held to a high standard, and the necessarily imperfect innovation operations, filled with variability, risk and uncertainty, but vital for growth and differentiation. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:55 AM


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