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Why Innovation Is Overvalued and What We Can Focus on Instead

No matter what industry or field you’re involved in today, the odds are that leaders and companies alike value innovation. It’s viewed as a game-changer, a difference-maker. And in the face of disruptive events and developments in technology, more organizations view innovation as something that must be harnessed within.

Attempting to foster internal innovation costs a certain amount of investment in money, time, and other resources. People need to be freed up from specific tasks to do the necessary work. Mindsets must be changed to encourage experimentation and embrace failure, which may entail a culture shift.

Is it worth the investment? Or can you do better by devoting those efforts to something else?

Aligning solutions with needs

Some people seem to believe in pursuing innovation for its own sake. In any industry, gaining even a small competitive edge can translate to amplified degrees of success. The idea is that by innovating, you are the first to gain experience with a new material, technique, or process, which can be your differentiating factor.

This assumes that you are discovering solutions to existing needs and that the result is practical in addition to being effective.

Consider a wastewater system that’s exposed to significant amounts of load-bearing stress. Metal covers would be ideal, except that metal corrodes quickly, especially when exposed to impure water. Instead of devising a unique new material, companies use manhole coating polymers to protect the metal for over 50 years.

When these requirements don’t align, however, you end up with something like blockchain. It has been hyped for its potential applications everywhere but so far has proven impractical outside of limited use in finance. It’s a solution currently in search of a problem.

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Pursuing innovation doesn’t guarantee success

The mere existence of problems and needs does not, in itself, guarantee that solutions will arise. Nor does it translate to a payoff in terms of investment in innovation. And our modern problems with fossil fuel dependence illustrate this clearly.

On the surface, it seems like a clear-cut situation. We know that burning fossil fuels pollutes the environment, driving global climate change and wreaking havoc on ecosystems everywhere. Extreme weather fluctuations make people sick, destroy property, and threaten to make entire cities unlivable.

It has been apparent for decades now that continuing to rely on fossil fuels is unsustainable. Yet no true alternative has emerged.

Renewables, such as wind and solar, carry the inherent limitation of intermittency: you don’t always have clear, sunny skies or strong winds. Electricity is not a true energy source but merely a method of delivering and using energy. Nuclear power has fallen out of favor due to the fallout from disasters such as Chernobyl or Fukushima.

The dearth of comprehensive solutions to our fossil fuel problem is not for want of trying. Scientists and experts across disciplines have been pursuing the matter with urgency, knowing that our long-term survival is at stake.

What the story tells us, though, is that solutions do not come at our bidding. Efforts to innovate might provide impractical results. Or they could suffer from limitations that will only become clear over time, after considerable investment.

Focus on early adoption

The heart of the problem with innovation is that people in various fields often rely on their gut or intuition when recognizing and pursuing that ‘big idea.’

Scientists, on the other hand, understand that innovation is a stochastic process. You can take a deliberate approach and make systematic progress towards a goal, but there will always be an element of randomness involved. Sometimes you’ll get what you want in a ‘eureka’ moment, but often it takes far more time and haphazard efforts to even get close to the desired result.

The truth is that only a few companies have the sort of resources to play around with in-house innovation. And even some of those have had to shut down. Neiman Marcus, for instance, decided to close its innovation lab in 2019.

It’s trendy to devote more resources towards innovation but hardly necessary. Research has shown that while being an innovator doesn’t always pay off, you can still reap the rewards by being a ‘first mover’ or ‘early adopter.’

Doing so only requires that you maintain a keen awareness of the emerging needs in your field. Stay on top of what the pioneers are doing to address them. Meanwhile, be a master of the options that are actually available at present and how to apply them effectively.

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