“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Steve Jobs
A dictionary would support the proposition that innovation is simply introducing something new – nothing more, nothing less. It follows that innovation can take many forms. It can be internal or external and “new” can mean new to a particular use, sector or situation rather than new to the world.
Indeed, many firms regarded as being innovative within our sector are characterised by their ability to translate well-trodden techniques and approaches from other industries and apply them to the professional environment. This knowledge transfer is possible because most of the innovation that we see is focused on the service wrapper and delivery approach rather than the core professional skill.
This is not to suggest that such firms have a straightforward task – many of the challenges which need to be addressed are vexed by the need to deliver behavioural change and deal with new levels of management complexity in order to make the innovation a reality. However, it is also clear that the business risks associated with innovations which are “new to our sector” rather than “new to the world” are significantly diminished.
In the past a very plausible strategy was to be a good imitator rather than a ground breaking innovator. Innovation was seen as overly risky, whereas with imitation the trail had already been blazed and the mistakes, which are implicit in any new development process, made.
However, in the markets of the future, an imitation-led “wait and see” strategy is unlikely to be good enough for firms which want to be at the forefront of the profession.
New approaches will be needed to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by an increasingly deregulated sector and clients who are keen to explore new ways of adding value. These factors, together with a wider variety of choice and ever shortening service and product life cycles, make a follower strategy an increasingly difficult base from which to build sustainable, profitable growth.
Indeed, shortening business cycles drives innovative thinking. In the past there was plenty of time to imitate successful approaches and services as they meandered through their life cycle. Today the lifecycle is compressed to the point where the innovator captures market share, exploits it to the full and moves on before the imitator is off the starting blocks.
In this environment we should remember the maxim, which every innovator knows implicitly, that he who lives by the sword dies by the bullet!