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Inigo Montoya on Innovation

Posted by Mark Bennett on April 14, 2009


"I do not think it means what you think it means."

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

While often noted for his death-defying, single-minded thirst for revenge, Inigo Montoya also had a penchant for making sure that words were used in their correct meaning. Lately, much has been said about how “Innovation” will help pull us out of the current economic crisis and many companies talk about how “Innovative” they are, but while people keep using that word, how much do they really know what it means in those contexts? If they don’t know what it really means, then how can they help it happen? Like Vizzini (“Inconceivable!”), we run around and shout, “Innovation!” whether it’s a company trying to address declining sales or increasing costs, or simply in response to the sense that the competition, or a recession, (a.k.a. “Dread Pirate Roberts”) is gradually, relentlessly catching up.

What do we know? The official definition of innovation (“Something newly introduced or the act of introducing something new.”) is a bit too broad, but it does remind us that innovation is both the process as well as the outcome. We tend to focus on outcome/results and not so much on the process. We are also accustomed to thinking of innovation first in technological terms rather than social and economic terms, and that limits our thinking about where innovation can be found. We also know that innovation is key to a company’s long-term profitability and survival since it can provide a competitive advantage. But that’s still outcome-focused; we know we want it, but we’re not sure how to get it.

So for our discussion, let’s describe innovation as the process of providing a new, better way of doing something. Fine, so how do we make it happen? The Myths of Innovation“, by Scott Berkun, provides an excellent and entertaining overview of innovation (and includes a very useful annotated bibliography.) More so, he lays out chapter by chapter how much of our frustration with making innovation happen comes from many misconceptions/myths that have been taught/sold to us. Much of it boils down to a simple overall conclusion which is that there really isn’t one simple formula to make innovation happen, but there are plenty of things that stop it.

So what does this have to do with talent management? While our talent management processes and models may not be able to ensure innovation will happen, at least on demand, we can still examine how they can help or hinder the process of innovation.

One good place to start is goal management as a mechanism to communicate what problems people are working on. We’ve talked before in this blog about how problem-solving is often a source of innovation. Goals can be an excellent trigger for problem-solving and hence a possible trigger for innovation if constructed carefully. Are your goals not only SMART, but are you also looking for ways in which goals capture what problems need to be solved? For example, a typical SMART goal might state a desired outcome of 1 million new widget sales by the end of the fiscal year. That’s great and is full of all the specific, measurable, time-based goodness, but a way to help spark innovation might be to connect that goal to a desired strategic objective – say becoming market leader in that product category. That might get someone to think of the bigger picture and who knows, connect an unmet customer segment demand in widgets to a customer satisfaction with another product and come up with something that ignites sales beyond the initial target. In other words, don’t let goals limit thinking by being just about the numbers.

A related area is performance management. So often, performance management takes the form of focusing on where the employee “didn’t measure up.” Individual performance is important and measurement against goals is a key part of determining performance. However, an overweight focus on goals in measuring performance can result in “Goals Gone Wild” and detract from contribution and prudent risk-taking behaviors outside the bounds of the original goals. Why should anyone expend energy innovating outside their box if there is only downside? Once again, taking the time to communicate, recognize, and reward desired collaborative behaviors can help innovation by encouraging employees to invest time in efforts that while risky, might create new competitive advantage for the company.

That’s just a start; we’ll look at some additional ways to foster innovation while still achieving business objectives in upcoming posts. In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

Here are some other good books to check out on Innovation:

7 Responses to “Inigo Montoya on Innovation”

  1. Amy Wilson said

    Wow, Mark, there’s some serious thinking going on here. I particularly liked:
    – innovation is about the process, not just a simple brilliant outcome
    and
    – “don’t let goals limit thinking”

    Good stuff!

  2. Meg Bear said

    Agree Mark — another heavy hitter. I have a few things I’ve been thinking about w.r.t. innovation myself — stay tuned.

  3. […] Inigo Montoya on Innovation […]

  4. Mike said

    Nice, Mark. I would add to your book list:

    – Dealing with Darwin (another Moore classic with some great insight into how to best deploy people to fuel innovation).

    – Open Innovation and Open Business Models by Henry Chesbrough. Both bring to life the point that your great ideas can be brought to market by others and/or you can commercialize the innovations dreamed up elsewhere. NIH – Not Invented Here – needs to become a thing of the past.

  5. Mordecai said

    Wow…really well thought out article. And love the Princess Bride references!

  6. @Amy, @Meg, @Mordecai – Thanks!

    @Mike – Thank you also for the added book recommendations. I had forgotten about “Dealing with Darwin” – Great call!

  7. […] exciting” on the paper, which captures so much in just three words what frequently occurs in the process of innovation. A problem existed at CERN, where Tim worked. He had an idea for how to address the problem. The […]

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