The Perennial Quest for Innovation, Avoiding Classic Mistakes

Innovation has always been at the heart of business growth. Periodically, it re-emerges to the forefront of corporate priorities, only to be overshadowed by operational exigencies or bottom-line pressures. Over the past decades, waves of innovation have come and gone, each characterized by its own challenges, opportunities, and insights. Yet, as history unfolds, there appears to be a chronic repetition of mistakes and misjudgments, leading us to ponder: Why does corporate amnesia prevail when it comes to mastering the art of innovation?

The Global Information Age of the late 1970s and 1980s saw Silicon Valley garages transform into innovation hotspots. IBM’s initiative to develop its PC away from the usual corporate constraints and the rise of quality-centric Japanese products were emblematic of a zeitgeist that championed novelty and quality. Yet, even then, the fervor for “total quality management” showcased the inherent volatility of innovation trends.

Fast forward to the Takeover Era of the late 1980s, where “shareholder value” became the rally cry. Restructuring and privatization echoed the metamorphosis of state-owned enterprises to market-driven entities. The transformative power of software began its reign, and companies became increasingly aware of the value of harnessing internal ideas.

The Digital Mania of the 1990s was, for many, a double-edged sword. The promises of the World Wide Web urged traditional companies to pivot towards novel business models, with some succeeding and others facing dire consequences. The AOL-Time Warner merger stands as a testament to the potential pitfalls of overly ambitious ventures.

In the post-dot-com era, a more Pragmatic Wave saw companies like GE and IBM refocus on organic growth, recognizing the intrinsic value of innovation rooted in addressing real-world problems and consumer needs. Yet, even amidst this pragmatism, challenges persisted.

Across these eras, certain recurring dilemmas became evident. The constant tension between maintaining current revenue streams and exploring new growth avenues was palpable. External challenges, where innovations often emanated from outside the conventional industry parameters, added further pressure.

Regrettably, the lessons from the past often seemed forgotten. The repeated mistakes, whether in terms of strategy, processes, structure, or skills, undermined the innovation potential. Pursuits for blockbuster innovations often blinded companies to smaller, yet equally valuable opportunities. Inflexible controls hindered the unpredictable path of innovation. Organizational structures either stifled or isolated budding innovative ventures. And critically, the undervaluation of leadership and communication skills frequently thwarted the nurturing of a robust innovative ecosystem.

But all is not lost. Awareness of these recurring challenges offers an opportunity. It’s essential to strike a balance between nurturing innovation and ensuring operational excellence. Innovators should be encouraged to work closely with broader business units, ensuring alignment with larger corporate goals. Leadership skills, coupled with technical prowess, should be championed, and open communication should be fostered at every stage.

The Classic Mistakes

  • Strategy Missteps: Some firms become blinded by the allure of the next ‘big idea’, sidelining projects that might seem insignificant at the outset but have the potential for massive growth. Time, Inc.’s initial hesitance in exploring new publications is a testament to this flawed approach. Not every project has to be the next ‘People magazine’ to be impactful.
  • Process Missteps: Overburdening innovations with stringent protocols intended for existing businesses can choke creativity and progress.
  • Structure Missteps: Keeping innovators isolated or creating a divisive atmosphere between those innovating and those operating mainstream business tasks can erode the collective organizational spirit.
  • Skills Missteps: Switching innovators rapidly, or choosing team leaders based solely on technical expertise without considering their leadership or interpersonal skills, is detrimental to innovation.
  • To simplify: many firms falter not because they lack innovative ideas, but because they fail to learn from past errors.


Lessons and Remedies

  • Widen Your Horizon: Innovation isn’t solely about new products; it spans new services, processes, and much more. Employ the ‘innovation pyramid’ strategy: prioritize a few top-tier ‘big bets’, nurture a mid-range collection of potential ideas, and maintain a broad base of incremental innovations. For instance, 3M’s Post-it Notes, a product of serendipity, demonstrates that sometimes, the most transformative ideas can arise from small-scale tinkering.
  • Encourage Fluidity: Strict structures and tight controls strangle innovation. Replace rigidity with flexibility. Take a page out of BBC’s playbook. By setting aside special funds for innovative endeavors, they birthed the hit comedy ‘The Office’.
  • Bridge the Gap: Forge a close-knit relationship between innovators and mainstream operators. This can be achieved through regular dialogues, collaborative projects, and rotations. Mainstream businesses can act as innovation ambassadors, ensuring that the transition from ideation to implementation is smooth.
  • Champion the Right Leaders: An effective leader doesn’t just have technical know-how. Interpersonal skills, leadership qualities, and the ability to unify a team are paramount.


Innovation is as much about looking forward as it is about reflecting backward. To truly foster innovation, companies must blend the zest for the new with lessons from the old. As the adage goes: Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. And in the realm of business innovation, this couldn’t be truer. With the right strategies and by sidestepping classic traps, businesses can not only imagine the future but actively shape it.

Tyler Holt is the Editor of Wood Industry / Le monde du bois magazine. He has a master’s degree in literature and publication, and years of experience in the publishing and digital media industry. His main area of study is the effect of digital technologies on industrial and networked production.

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