Bell Telephone developed the first automatic switchboard in 1910 after projections indicated that by 1925 every adult woman in America would be needed to staff the manual switchboards that were in place. Do you think the new innovative automatic system was an immediate hit with telephone customers and the industry experts? Well, probably not with everyone:
“The experts are convinced that the young woman operator – that is, a human brain and set of fingers (and the young woman is found to possess the best combination for the purpose) – is a necessary feature to cope with the great range of selection required in the telephone service. The automatic telephone exchange does not meet the conditions under which the telephone service has to be operated today.”~ H.L. Webb, 1910
Current unemployment rates, and longing for a human touch, may tempt you to argue for manual processes. Even so, I’m guessing you’d still give the nod to innovation. After all, innovation has a way of opening up new possibilities and is likely to produce competitive advantages. Would you describe your organization as innovative? “Most companies say they’re innovative in the hope they can somehow con investors into thinking there is growth when there isn’t,” says Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of the 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” In all fairness, innovation, from an internal or external point-of-view, is not that easy. For example, if you’ve ever developed and launched a new product or service that encroaches on established revenue streams then you know the roadblocks and channel conflict that you are likely to face. As a marketer, how do you keep a new initiative alive? In my opinion there are three keys:
1. Resources are required. Wow, I know that sounds obvious, but the fact of the matter is that underspending on new ideas is a more common cause of failure than overspending. Having said that, we all know that resources (people, time and money) tend to be scarce. That means you’ll need to focus. Pick the one or two innovations with the best prospect and push those hard.
2. Be persistent. You’d better love that innovative idea, because good ideas don’t always work the first time. There will probably be some bugs that will have to be worked out to build customer-focused acceptance. In addition, good ideas often alter the power balance within an organization. That’s why good ideas are sometimes resisted by co-workers, peers and channel partners. In fact, if resistance is extreme you may need to set up a separate unit or use contractors.
3. Nurture learning. That’s also code speak for saying it’s OK to take risks. Learning organizations are able to continuously transform by developing a culture that encourages and supports continuous employee learning, critical thinking, and risk taking with new ideas. They allow mistakes and learn from their experiences.
Yes, risk-taking is inherently failure-prone, but risk is a part of growth. Are your employees encouraged to ask, “Do we do what we did before, or do we try something new?” If your corporate culture is more about “sure-thing-taking” then don’t be surprised when the big breakthroughs come from your competition.