“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
Harry Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927
Luckily for them (and us!) his brother Sam ignored these now famous words of advice. Continuing to iterate and experiment with Thomas Edison’s invention of recorded sound, he was able to crack the problem of synchronisation and released the industry’s first full length talkie feature film, the Jazz Singer, in 1927. It took many years for the rest of the industry to catch up.
Harry Warner was not ignorant when he offered that advice, he was an expert in his industry, but he failed to recognise that he needed to “jump to the next curve”, (a phrase coined by Guy Kawasaki from Apple). He was so entrenched with his current product set and so concerned with being on a level playing field with his competitors, he operated in a constant state of improving, which was not bad thing if what you needed to do was to make better silent movies. What Sam Warner intuitively understood was that it was not about looking at improvements, but rather about taking a step back and looking at what they were not seeing (or hearing). That is what got him ahead of the competition.
Moving into the 21st century, according to a 2015 article in Strategy + Business, one thousand publicly held companies spent $680 billion on research and development alone. Yet, staggeringly only 6% of executives were satisfied with the outcome.
After speaking to over 1000 company executives, Tom Kelly from IDEO concluded that the biggest single trend they’ve observed, was the growing acknowledgement of innovation as a centrepiece of corporate strategies and initiatives. These days, companies have sophisticated tools and techniques at their disposal and more resources than ever deployed in reaching innovation goals. Innovation processes in companies are structured and disciplined. There are stage gates and rapid iterations, risks are calculated and managed – there are precise measurements and strict requirements for products at each stage of development. This can create the illusion of progress, without actually causing it. As Yogi Berra famously observed; “We’re lost but we’re making good time!”
The good news is that innovation can be cultivated and entrepreneurship can be taught. While a university degree won’t turn you into an entrepreneur it does teach some fundamental skills necessary to run a business. The practise of Scrum’s empirical inspect and adapt process control, with a specific focus on innovation, is an excellent way to develop an innovative mindset. The embodiment of agile values should foster a culture where failure is part of learning and viewed as progress, not as mistakes or an opportunity to portion blame.
There is no magic formula to ensure innovation, but leaders can – and should – go a long way to create a culture where at least, it is possible.