What To Do With Mediocre Innovation

Several of the businesses in two of my favorite industries had disappointing earnings releases over the past couple of weeks. They did pretty well in emerging markets, where their portfolio of products are “new”, but most of them struggled to grow in developed countries. And although they have plans to go after additional cost reductions in the supply chain, I suspect the bigger issue they have is what to do with a mediocre innovation process.

Nobody aspires to mediocrity so why does it happen? Especially in innovation? If you’ve been around people who create new products for any length of time, you probably have your own good list of reasons. But one reason you may not have on your list: habit. Companies are mediocre at innovation because they are in the habit of being mediocre.

People, especially creative people, will tell you what they do is unique, situational, and has nothing to do with habit. But just ask them to do one small thing a little differently. You’ll quickly find they too are unknowingly creatures of habit and the habit loop (cue – routine – reward). Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit says, “Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits.”

Likewise, organizations form “process habits” where they approach things like innovation in the same way, day in and day out, in a constant habitual rhythm. They are “cued” by the company calendar, go into their normal innovation routine, and emerge to expected rewards.

But when the innovation habit is mediocre and isn’t producing the output needed for growth, it needs to be “broken”. Cues, routines, and rewards need to be examined and changed in thoughtful ways to form new “habits” that produce better outcomes.

And, yes. It is much more complicated than that. But it’s what most of those companies with disappointing earnings calls need. Companies who’ve had the same innovation habit for years and years. Companies whose innovation in developed markets is mediocre. Who are stuck in the habit of mediocrity.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. People and organizations aspire to more. They aspire to work that matters. They aspire to great innovation. They aspire to make great innovation a habit.