Across all my activities, I hear management talking about the “next big thing”, the importance of innovation, of being different, creating new product platforms, and striving to be disruptive, but settling for a change of colour, flavour or pack size.
After a long time at this, it seems there are a small number of very consistent reasons that show up, usually in multiples.
1. Incremental is easy. It is easy to be incremental, but true innovation is really, really hard. Not only do you have to come up with the ideas, but you have to sell them internally before you get a chance to take ideas to the market. Taking yourself, and the enterprise outside its comfort zone is a major exercise in leadership, and there simply is not enough of it. On top of that, it is hard to get a budget for stuff you have little idea about, the discounted cash flow analyses, even if they are at the push of a spreadsheet button, carry way more corporate weight.
2. Human beings are risk averse. We like the stable, familiar, and predictable, and shy away risk. Daniel Kahneman co-authored a 1979 article which won him the Nobel prize, that put numbers around the notion of risk reward. When offered the choice of $1000, or a 50% chance of $2,500, a majority take the money and run.
3. It really is so easy to say No. Finding reasons not to take a punt is really easy, there are usually many on offer. By contrast, it is difficult, risky, potentially personally expensive, to say yes, and you have to keep on saying it, confirming and reconfirming the project in the face of the naysayers. Corporations of any size larger than 7 people are hierarchies, and consequences of decision making are social as well as commercial. Few people are prepared to be seen to make a mistake, and most will avoid the possibility like the plague.
Every organization needs some sort of balance, a discipline of culture that regulates the manner in which they behave. It is in the way the balance is struck, and the behavior that is favored where the innovative enterprises have the edge. Everybody has the same(or similar) access to the market for ideas, good people, technology, and all the other inputs necessary apart from the fundamentally important one that is internal, the culture of the place.
Safe nowadays is the new risky, so get off the fence!