Innovators paint themselves into corners
Of course we use this analogy in different settings today to describe situations where an individual has maneuvered themselves into a place with no viable alternatives or exits. All too frequently this analogy applies to innovators. Let me explain why that is, and why innovation often seems so incremental.
The Desired Outcome
In most innovation activities, early at the start of the project or initiative there is a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. The team will finally have a chance to tackle an interesting challenge or problem and recommend new solutions that may become valuable new products and services. But what often goes missing in the early stages is an explicit statement of scope, which defines anticipated outcomes and expectations. Unless everyone agrees that the outcome should be radically different or disruptive, the team will take the assumption that existing products, services and business models are static and must be protected, therefore any new idea must peacefully co-exist with existing products and services. And this is a point where the team eliminates alternatives and starts painting itself into a corner.
Without explicit agreement about the expected outcomes and scope of the activity, the team will constrain itself. Often, even with an explicit statement about scope and expected outcomes, teams won't allow themselves to think more broadly or disruptively. Here I'll borrow a phrase from a previous president - teams work under the bigotry of low expectations, and they limit themselves to the first Hippocratic oath: first do no harm. Their expectation is to do no harm to existing products, or services, or business models, or channels.
Evolution rather than disruption
This is why so many innovation activities result in ho-hum incremental products or services rather than interesting disruption. Teams instinctively select an evolutionary model of innovation rather than a disruptive model of innovation, and who can blame them. Again, without explicit and constantly reinforced messages of expected outcomes and innovation scope, every team will fall back to safe assumptions. Once the evolutionary model is selected, options narrow quickly and disruptive or radical ideas are quickly tossed aside. As evolutionary models of innovation are selected, the existing frameworks, evaluations and assessments are used. As these continue to narrow scope and constrain ideas and thinking, the range of possible outcomes narrows even further, to the point where innovation becomes about moving a knob or changing colors of existing products. In other words, very incremental.
Crowds and Pitchforks
This is when the crowds emerge with the pitchforks to declare the "failure" of innovation and the uselessness of innovation methods, practices and tools. While their own culture and perspectives have limited their risk taking and failure, it's far easier to blame innovation for false promises of disruptive ideas, when, unless it was an explicitly expected goal and outcome, was never going to happen in an evolutionary model of innovation. It should be obvious, but it often isn't, that the initial scope, goals, perspectives and mindsets of the team and how they think about their jobs and potential outcomes for innovation matter far more than the tools that they use. And so many people have been so indoctrinated to small change, incremental improvement, continuous efficiency and the elimination of risk and uncertainty that getting past that mental framework is exceptionally difficult.
We need more Galileos and Columbuses
Galileo, for all his faults, was convinced that science and his discoveries of the motion of planets was more scientifically correct than the existing doctrine of the church. Columbus was convinced that he could sail west to arrive in the east, and had the daring to try to prove it. The reason these individuals remain famous today is that their examples are so rare - willing to reject existing doctrine and thinking to envision a radically different alternative. That's what it takes to generate radically different ideas. Rather than ask: what can we invent that sustains the existing markets and models we should ask: what can we imagine that dramatically shifts the balance of power in a market. That shift can come from new products, new services, new business models or combinations of these and other factors. But we'll continue to paint our teams into corners with few alternatives that result in barely differentiable innovations until we set out intentionally and consistently to define disruptive innovation outcomes within the scope of the project as we start, and reinforcing those goals during the project as we progress.
If you want incremental innovation, if spending a significant amount of time and effort to achieve small improvements is OK with you, keep doing what you are doing. If you really desire dramatic innovation outcomes, disruptive new products, then stake out that vision early, ensure everyone on the team understands the vision and doesn't limit their thinking, and reinforce that vision and expected outcomes constantly during an innovation exercise. Don't allow your innovation teams to paint themselves into corners that weren't intentional.