“Innovation” has become this decade’s go-to business concept. Its star is clearly rising, which makes it easy — perhaps too easy — for the C suite to champion.

The optimists and visionaries among us look to innovation for powerful, fundamental shifts. But for most people, the seduction of innovation is in incremental improvements, not disruption. We want the benefits of change, but only within the comfortable confines of our existing routines. We love the idea of fixing things at a fundamental level, but we settle for smoothing out the rough edges of our day-to-day experiences because fundamental change is such hard work.

So when a senior leader proudly proclaims, “We will achieve high performance through innovation … ” most of us, at least momentarily, suspend our disbelief. We let our enthusiasm for change overpower any cynicism left over from previous efforts to change the world. (“Reengineering,” anyone?) With our platitude filters temporarily disabled, we follow leadership’s directives down a path that is likely to fail.

But we know that hoping isn’t the same as doing. We intuit that innovation of any type requires immense levels of planning, organizational energy, and drive: It’s not the purely creative exercise that it sounds like on the surface. We know that the connection between bold and inspiring proclamations and productive actions is often not made, or made badly.

Talk Is Cheap

On the inspiration and the business trend fashion scales, the word “innovation” is probably a nine or 10 out of 10. So it’s not surprising that 27 percent of respondents to a recent Celent survey on innovation said that innovation is “critical” to their company’s strategy, and another 66 percent said it was “important.”

Some of that enthusiasm is driven from the C suite. Sixty-two percent of survey respondents said that innovation had C-level champions in their firms. But despite the near-universal understanding that important initiatives need do-ers to support cheerleaders, a relatively small number of firms Celent surveyed reported that they had a chief innovation officer (11 percent) or an Innovation Center of Excellence (27 percent).

The implication is that a good number of C suite execs are saying that innovation is important, but they expect it to happen organically, as part of normal operations.

This finding raises interesting questions. Is it possible to drive innovation through existing organizational structures? If there is no one with an “Innovation!” sign over his or her door, is it reasonable to expect meaningful innovation? Is the fact that the C suite champions innovation likely to translate to substantial improvements in business products, processes, and services that customers and intermediaries will notice?

The answers are all the same: no. Having C-level support for innovation is necessary, but it is not enough to create meaningful innovation of any type. Getting the executives to stand up and say, “This is important to us, and I’ll support you as you make it happen … ” is only the launching point for an innovation journey.

 

Craig Weber is CEO of Celent, a research and advisory firm.

This blog was exclusively written for Insurance Networking News. Published with permission.