Despite massive investments of management time and money, innovation remains a frustrating pursuit in many companies. Innovation initiatives frequently fail, and successful innovators have a hard time sustaining their performance—as Polaroid, Nokia, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard, and countless others have found. Why is it so hard to build and maintain the capacity to innovate? The reasons go much deeper than the commonly cited cause: a failure to execute. The problem with innovation improvement efforts is rooted in the lack of an innovation strategy.
A strategy is nothing more than a commitment to a set of coherent, mutually reinforcing policies or behaviors aimed at achieving a specific competitive goal. Good strategies promote alignment among diverse groups within an organization, clarify objectives and priorities, and help focus efforts around them. Companies regularly define their overall business strategy (their scope and positioning) and specify how various functions—such as marketing, operations, finance, and R&D—will support it. But during my more than two decades studying and consulting for companies in a broad range of industries, I have found that firms rarely articulate strategies to align their innovation efforts with their business strategies.
Without an innovation strategy, innovation improvement efforts can easily become a grab bag of much-touted best practices: dividing R&D into decentralized autonomous teams, spawning internal entrepreneurial ventures, setting up corporate venture-capital arms, pursuing external alliances, embracing open innovation and crowdsourcing, collaborating with customers, and implementing rapid prototyping, to name just a few. There is nothing wrong with any of those practices per se. The problem is that an organization’s capacity for innovation stems from an innovation system: a coherent set of interdependent processes and structures that dictates how the company searches for novel problems and solutions, synthesizes ideas into a business concept and product designs, and selects which projects get funded. Individual best practices involve trade-offs. And adopting a specific practice generally requires a host of complementary changes to the rest of the organization’s innovation system. A company without an innovation strategy won’t be able to make trade-off decisions and choose all the elements of the innovation system.
Aping someone else’s system is not the answer. There is no one system that fits all companies equally well or works under all circumstances. There is nothing wrong, of course, with learning from others, but it is a mistake to believe that what works for, say, Apple (today’s favorite innovator) is going to work for your organization. An explicit innovation strategy helps you design a system to match your specific competitive needs.
Finally, without an innovation strategy, different parts of an organization can easily wind up pursuing conflicting priorities—even if there’s a clear business strategy. Sales representatives hear daily about the pressing needs of the biggest customers. Marketing may see opportunities to leverage the brand through complementary products or to expand market share through new distribution channels. Business unit heads are focused on their target markets and their particular P&L pressures. R&D scientists and engineers tend to see opportunities in new technologies. Diverse perspectives are critical to successful innovation. But without a strategy to integrate and align those perspectives around common priorities, the power of diversity is blunted or, worse, becomes self-defeating.
A good example of how a tight connection between business strategy and innovation can drive long-term innovation leadership is found in Corning, a leading manufacturer of specialty components used in electronic displays, telecommunications systems, environmental products, and life sciences instruments. (Disclosure: I have consulted for Corning, but the information in this article comes from the 2008 HBS case study “Corning: 156 Years of Innovation,” by H. Kent Bowen and Courtney Purrington.) Over its more than 160 years Corning has repeatedly transformed its business and grown new markets through breakthrough innovations. When judged against current best practices, Corning’s approach seems out of date. The company is one of the few with a centralized R&D laboratory (Sullivan Park, in rural upstate New York). It invests a lot in basic research, a practice that many companies gave up long ago. And it invests heavily in manufacturing technology and plants and continues to maintain a significant manufacturing footprint in the United States, bucking the trend of wholesale outsourcing and offshoring of production.
Yet when viewed through a strategic lens, Corning’s approach to innovation makes perfect sense. The company’s business strategy focuses on selling “keystone components” that significantly improve the performance of customers’ complex system products. Executing this strategy requires Corning to be at the leading edge of glass and materials science so that it can solve exceptionally challenging problems for customers and discover new applications for its technologies. That requires heavy investments in long-term research. By centralizing R&D, Corning ensures that researchers from the diverse disciplinary backgrounds underlying its core technologies can collaborate. Sullivan Park has become a repository of accumulated expertise in the application of materials science to industrial problems. Because novel materials often require complementary process innovations, heavy investments in manufacturing and technology are a must. And by keeping a domestic manufacturing footprint, the company is able to smooth the transfer of new technologies from R&D to manufacturing and scale up production.
Corning’s strategy is not for everyone. Long-term investments in research are risky: The telecommunications bust in the late 1990s devastated Corning’s optical fiber business. But Corning shows the importance of a clearly articulated innovation strategy—one that’s closely linked to a company’s business strategy and core value proposition. Without such a strategy, most initiatives aimed at boosting a firm’s capacity to innovate are doomed to fail.