Why is a framework for strategic innovation so hard to create?

One issue that innovation authors, consultants and practitioners have struggled with is how to create a strategic framework for implementing innovation. No one has been able to explain why this process has been so long and difficult, until now. Vj Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, authors of the new Harvard Business School Press book, 10 Rules for Strategic Innovators, have come up with the most plausible explanation I have seen anywhere.

One issue that innovation authors, consultants and practitioners have struggled with is how to create a strategic framework for implementing innovation. No one has been able to explain why this process has been so long and difficult – until now. Vj Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, authors of the new Harvard Business School Press book, 10 Rules for Strategic Innovators, have come up with the most plausible explanation I have seen anywhere:

“In part, the reason for the slow accumulation of knowledge in this area is that it requires difficult and expensive research. Studies of which strategies to choose can proceed with largely quantitative and statistical techniques, but the utility of using such methods to approach the how of strategy is limited… Truly understanding what works and why requires multi-year, qualitative, interpretive study. The study of strategic innovation resembles history or psychology more than finance or economics.”

The authors also point out that it is hard for managers to accumulate practical real-world knowledge because most companies don’t have an ongoing commitment to innovation:

“Practitioners of strategic innovation have few opportunities for repetition (which engenders learning) because each attempt takes at least a few years. Only a handful of…people (have) participated in strategic experiments even once before, in part because corporations bet on them only sporadically. Early in life, many companies conclude that all their resources must support the growth and expansion of the existing business. Senior executives defer strategic experiments until growth declines.”

“With such inconsistent investment, deep knowledge about the management of strategic innovation cannot accumulate in any one organization. Further, rarely do managers of strategic experiments return for an encore. Those who succeed ascend internally to bigger responsibilities and those who fail often leave for opportunities elsewhere.”

This explanation helps to explain, in part, why strategic innovation has not become as pervasive as total quality and its variants — because the latter is based largely on statistical analysis (i.e., increasing the productivity of a production line by 20% while cutting waste 70%), while innovation strategy is much more qualitative in nature.

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