Efficiency vs Innovation - What Innovation Isn't
2 min read

Efficiency vs Innovation - What Innovation Isn't

Efficiency is doing what we already know how to do, but better and better. I shared some of my thoughts on working toward efficiency in this post. On the other side of the coin is innovation. Innovation is about finding ways to succeed when we don't know what to do and requires a totally different approach than the pursuit of efficiency. Let's explore!

I think the word innovation gets a bad reputation due to overuse, misuse, and a proliferation of innovation theater. Because of this, I'd like to share a few thoughts about what innovation IS NOT before I discuss when we should pursue innovation.

Innovation Isn't a Framework

Implementing Scrum isn't innovation. Hiring a coach to teach your team how to run lean experiments isn't innovation. Running a design-thinking workshop isn't innovation.

Innovation is a verb, and it's the verb that I'm most interested in. Activities listed above are not bad activities, but when they're done with a check-the-box mentality so a company can refer to themselves as "innovative," we're missing the mark entirely. Innovation is a thing we have to do when the situation requires. You don't get an innovation badge for having sticky notes on the white board or paying an accrediting body for a certification...you get it by achieving success in the midst of uncertainty, repeatedly over time, across all aspects of your organization.

Innovation Isn't a Job Role

Chief Innovation Officer is a pretty fun title and doesn't look bad on anybody's LinkedIn or resume. Having a CIO might be a signal to the outside world, but it doesn't mean your organization has a culture of innovation. If "innovation" is established as a siloed department or a job of one person, we're missing the mark.

Innovation has be an action the entire organization has the ability, willingness, and skillset to be able to take when the time is right. If your CIO is tasked with building the innovation muscle across the entire organization, that feels pretty good. If your CIO is tasked with coming up with "innovative ideas" in their open office space away from the rest of the organization, I'd have a lot of questions.

Your People Are Already Innovative

In my experience, most people have the capability of innovating when the time arises. If this is true, then why don't we? From years of working with enterprise customers and government agencies, my observation (and the observation of countless others) is the processes and culture of these teams and organizations are what stifles innovation, not a lack of skill on the people.

People have ideas all the time. If we're able to clearly articulate the problem we're looking to solve, folks will come up with potential solutions. The difference in innovative organizations is what happens after some solutions are identified.

  • Traditional Organization - We can't do that because of X...Build a business plan and get ready to pitch it at the annual meeting in 4 months...Why don't you talk to these 7 people and see if you can get sign off...
  • Innovative Organization - What needs to be true in order to try this? What's the smallest way we can test if this will work? How quickly can we learn if this will work or not? How will we know if it's working?

If we want our organizations to have innovative people, we need to work to eliminate the processes that prevent innovation from happening.


In the next post, I'll be writing about the pursuit of innovation. Specifically, I'll be looking at how to identify when innovation is the right course of action and how we can think about designing experiments to make progress. Thanks for reading!

Enjoying these posts? Subscribe for more