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Corporate Innovation Is Harder Than It Looks

Innovation always looks fun from the outside. The image of Steve Jobs launching the iPhone in 2007 or the current success of OpenAI and NVIDIA. People who work at these companies look like they are having a lot of fun. But how much fun are they really having?

Morgan Housel’s latest book Same As Ever is packed full of nuggets. One of my favorite chapters is titled: Harder Than It Looks And Not As Fun As It Seems. Housel notes that when people and companies present themselves to the world, they don’t reveal ‘how the sausage is made’. In most companies, there are awkward personalities and difficult situations to navigate that the outside world does not see.

Innovation Is A Wicked Problem

So how might this apply to innovation? Most innovation teams and projects I have been a part of are messy and barely functional. The team dynamics can be challenging. But even with a well functioning team, trying to find value propositions that resonate with customers and business models that are profitable is a difficult and complex task.

At first it seems fun when leaders ask teams to start an innovation lab. These teams are given budgets and a beautiful space to work in. The teams start to have fun ideation sessions and hackathons. But then it gets harder than it looks when those same leaders start asking for tangible results from the work being done in the lab.

These are my reflections from a recent conversation with the director of an innovation lab at a large international airline. They have been exploring various interesting ideas and technologies. Some of the stuff they are working on looks really cool! But now she is reporting to a new leader who has set her the challenge that he wants to see the stuff the lab is working on show up in the business.

This is a moment of truth. It is much harder than it looks to have innovations show up in the business. The only way this happens is if the innovations are adopted internally to improve existing processes or the company gets revenues from new product or service launches. This is not easily done. Now the real work begins!

Innovation is a wicked problem. Having a cool technology is not the same thing as having a value proposition. Innovation teams have to figure out what customers want. This is a tough challenge because people often don’t know what they want until they see it. So the goal is to develop a deep empathy for the problems that customers are facing and use this as a basis for developing a value proposition.

But having a value proposition is not the same thing as having a scalable and profitable business model. So there is still more work to be done to figure out how we create, deliver and capture value from customers. This work requires collaboration across key functions within the company. Driving this collaborative work can be messy.

Do The Hard Things First

It is not advisable for innovation teams to wait to do the hard things until much later in the life of their innovation lab. If they invest all their energy and time on the fun side of innovation, they are borrowing from their future selves. At some point, they will have to account for the value they are creating for their company. This is when the fun stops. It is better to face reality from the beginning. Innovation is harder than it looks and not as fun as it seems.

This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Learn more at

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