I don’t have an innovation strategy

Many clients, or potential clients, often tell me “I don’t consider innovation in my strategy.” What I usually reply is: “Well, not stating innovation in your strategy IS a strategy.” Omission has a direct impact on the way things get done.

I then ask them: Do you Play-to-Win or do you Play-Not-To-Lose?

In both approaches towards innovation strategy, some kind of innovation, or at least change, is necessary, but at a different degree. Play-To-Win means you want to take control or stay in control of the market by introducing new products or services for competitive advantages. Play-Not-To-Lose is simply that you are not interested in being at the top, but of course, you don’t want to end up last. Those clients who often tell me that they are “doing changes just to keep alive” or “keep up with the market” are playing not-to-lose and most of the time are creating me-too products at mature stages of their cycle. Sometimes those same companies, since they are not doing great innovation efforts, simply don’t talk about their innovation approach, much less about strategy, goals or processes. This is true for many companies in developing countries where I have worked.

Play-not- to-Lose is not an uncommon strategy or part of a strategy. Although we always want to feel like winners and to ‘shoot at the stars’, we can’t always be radically innovating the market in all areas, in all our business units or in all product families. It would just be chaotic and unsustainable. So we should choose our battles, some will be won and some we should fight just not to end up last or obsolete.

The innovation strategy plan DOES need to state those battles we are not interested in, so that our soldiers don’t waste their time and effort. Of course we can’t be completely closed to new ideas that can emerge, but we can guide efforts so that more ideas emerge where we want them to.

Remember that more innovation doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good thing. Innovation should be a part of the strategy plan and have specific goals and impact areas. If you simply don’t think it would be adequate to make changes in a certain department, business unit or product family, then state it in the strategy plan, don’t just omit it, say it! If you don't, it will just cause confusion. Play-not-to-lose is not a mediocre approach, sometimes it is smarter. Don't think it involves less work, it's just a different kind of innovation management. Store your energies when needed, you can leapfrog opponents later (innovation is not sequential) and don’t be afraid to lay low for a while. Just make sure to get your overall strategy right!

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