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What does an innovative company look like?

December 1, 2005

Irving Wladawsky-Berger and John Patrick on the changing face of innovation

Ready for change

An innovative company may not look the same tomorrow

Is it any wonder that companies, like the humans who build them, seek stability, familiarity and security? Oh, the comfort of rules set in stone, ironclad policies you can lean on and institutional practices based on tradition.

With every passing day, that kind of safe, predictable business culture is more passé. Like it or not, it’s self-perpetuating, a prescription for more of the same. In our global, hyper-competitive business world of the 21st century, we know that sameness is a prescription for stagnation, or worse.

Innovate to compete. That’s the current mantra. Creativity is deemed the core competence for thriving organizations. New products, new services, new business models. That’s the way to grow. Agility, flexibility and responsiveness to customers and markets are the characteristics of leading companies.

But building an innovative culture is a very tall order. Why? Because encouraging unconventional thinking is simply that: counter-intuitive, “not the way we do things around here.”

Innovation has its roots in an attitude that permeates a company. It’s openness to unexpected and unsettling ideas – from the executive suite to the plant floor. Even more essential, it’s willingness to modify old habits and maybe rock the boat. It demands readiness to change.

Innovation starts on the inside, in the corporate mindset. And where it takes hold, companies are apt to adjust and grow and look distinctly different on the outside, too.

Interviewees are Irving Wladawsky-Berger and John Patrick.


JOHN: Innovation requires a lot of iteration. It requires a commitment to be able to change. It requires a way of thinking that this solution may not be the best one and to make it better should not be an eighteen-month process. It should be an eighteen-minute process.
IRVING: I think one of the biggest mistakes companies make is that they often keep the things that make them successful too long – and maybe this is the way you were successful ten years ago but ten years ago is ten years ago.
JOHN: Now some industries are more negatively impacted by change than others when it comes to many of these things we are talking about. For example, the music industry has been greatly impacted by digital music. Everyone knew that this would happen. This should not have been a surprise. But for some reason it was a surprise to the music industry.
IRVING: What happens is one company tries to retain what it has, other companies zoom right along. So you are here defending the old fort and the barbarians are gone. I mean, they run away with your customers. Not a good business model.
JOHN: So I would say, broadly speaking, the industries that resist change are the ones that are threatened by the new technology. But I think by now, I hope we all know that grassroots-empowered movements like the Web, like blogging, like podcasting, like social networking, these cannot be stopped.