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Reconsidering Innovations in Innovation

In the morning-after retrospective, as everyone sobered and surveyed the post-innovation wreckage around them, the mantra of "Innovate or die!" seemed a worn and unwelcome cliché. At business conferences and board meetings, innovation—at least anything beyond incremental change—became a hushed topic. Instead, it was back to the real business of business: retrenching and restructuring, focus and efficiency, watching cash and waiting for clear signals from the marketplace. The deliberative, suit-and-tie Organization Man was back in vogue. The frenetic and disheveled Silicon Valley dream merchant was disdainfully out of style.

Of course, the innovation enthusiasts had been at least partly right with their cry of "Innovate or die!" Especially in fast and dramatically changing business environments, failure to adapt definitely might threaten a company's continued success or even survival. But these one-sided cries ignored the other half of the delicately balanced innovation equation. Both "innovate and die" and "innovate or die" are very real risks. Deftly managing this precarious balance is critical. This is the key dilemma—and the core challenge—of innovation.

The Rise of the Innovation Industry

Innovation is a gamble. It offers potentially huge rewards, but concomitantly high risks. It increasingly requires big, up-front, largely irreversible investments in the uncertain hopes of distant returns. It involves hard-to-corral creativity, beyond-our-control serendipity, more than a few diversions, leaps of faith, and outright mistakes on the road from conception to commercialization. Companies big and small find themselves struggling with the myriad strategic, organizational, and financial challenges of innovation.

In response to these challenges, an entire innovation industry bloomed in recent years. Many different players promised and promoted their own solutions for the dilemmas of innovation. Depending upon whom you were to believe, your problems could be successfully tackled if only you understood and applied the current, novel "best practice." Such simple appeals made for clear and emphatic marketing messages, if not deeper understanding. Cure-all and one-size-fits-all solutions proliferated.

The innovation industry peaked as New Economy enthusiasm grew to fantastic heights. Likewise, each innovation fad and fashion deflated along with the rest of the technology and market bubble. There is danger in these deflated expectations, however. Because managers are now understandably quite cynical after hearing far too much innovation hype for far too long, the danger is that an entire field of potentially valuable and practically useful ideas lies fallow.

Innovations in Innovation

In our exploration of the innovation landscape, we focus less attention on those unstructured ideas that made pithy promises of supercharged creativity or profligate novelty. Whatever one thinks of these ideas and their promoters, they are difficult to analyze and critique because they offer anecdotes and affirmation more than balanced evidence and actionable recommendations. Instead, we focus on the more structured ideas that promised to power innovation to fruition, all the way from initial conception through full commercialization.

These innovative ideas include a large number and wide variety of different strategies and tactics. In this book, however, we focus on the most prevalent and important innovations in innovation. These strategic tools and organizational tactics include the following:

  • Corporate venturing, including corporate venture capital

  • Patenting and intellectual property licensing (asset-lite innovation)

  • Innovation by alliance

  • Innovation by acquisition

  • Spinouts and spin-ins (spinnovation)

As with all fads and fashions, something at the core of each of these "innovations in innovation" proved irresistibly appealing. As each of the latest and greatest innovation ideas splashed onto the scene, it was all too easy to get caught up in the excitement—whether it was to fund corporate venturing, aggressively patent or partner, to binge on acquisitions, or spin a spinout (see Figure 1-1). The market for management ideas is surely even less reasoned and objective than the fickle and gyrating financial markets themselves. As managers raced to adopt each new innovative idea that came in turn, the results most often were disappointing and disillusioning. In the aftermath, each idea lost its glow and the appeal of all the supposed innovations in innovation waned.

Figure 1.1Figure 1-1 Seeking new innovation solutions.

Each of these approaches promised not abstractions, but rather more practical, tangible paths from invention to market: roadmaps for creating and capturing the value from innovation. Each approach offered a simple and appealing alternative model for innovation rather than a more complex menu of critical decisions and choices. In each case, one or two leading organizations were usually offered as exemplars for other companies to follow and imitate. Many managers did follow these examples and guidelines, often quite enthusiastically.

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