Companies with a restricted view of innovation can miss opportunities. A new framework called the “innovation radar” helps avoid that.
Faced with slow growth, commoditization and global competition, many CEOs view innovation as critical to corporate success. William Ford Jr., chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Co., recently announced that, “[f]rom this point onward, innovation will be the compass by which the company sets its direction” and that Ford “will adopt innovation as its core business strategy going forward.”1 Echoing those comments, Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric Co., has talked about the “Innovation Imperative,” a belief that innovation is central to the success of a company and the only reason to invest in its future.2 Thus GE is pursuing around 100 “imagination breakthrough” projects to drive growth though innovation. And Steve Ballmer, Microsoft Corp.’s CEO, stated recently that “innovation is the only way that Microsoft can keep customers happy and competitors at bay.”3
But what exactly is innovation? Although the subject has risen to the top of the CEO agenda, many companies have a mistakenly narrow view of it. They might see innovation only as synonymous with new product development or traditional research and development. But such myopia can lead to the systematic erosion of competitive advantage, resulting in firms within an industry looking more similar to each other over time.4 Best practices get copied, encouraged by benchmarking. Consequently, companies within an industry tend to pursue the same customers with similar offerings, using undifferentiated capabilities and processes. And they tend to innovate along the same dimensions. In technology-based industries, for example, most firms focus on product R&D. In the chemical or oil and gas industries, the emphasis is on process innovations. And consumer packaged-goods manufacturers tend to concentrate on branding and distribution. But if all firms in an industry are seeking opportunities in the same places, they tend to come up with the same innovations. Thus, viewing innovation too narrowly blinds companies to opportunities and leaves them vulnerable to competitors with broader perspectives.