The 5 Myths of Innovation

The 5 Myths of Innovation
Julian Birkinshaw, Cyril Bouquet and J-L. Barsoux
MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2011

Today, most managers assume that innovation is supposed to be done constantly, by everyone in the company, on every area of the company, while using new Web-based tools to help it happen. Does this conventional wisdom really make sense? Or do the experiences of companies reveal something different?

To find the answers, a team of researchers spent three years studying the process of innovation in 13 global companies: Mars, BP, Sara Lee, IBM, Best Buy, BBC, Whirlpool, BT, Roche Diagnostics, GSK, ThomsonReuters, UBS, and Royal Bank of Scotland.

In “The 5 Myths of Innovation,” in the Winter 2011 MIT Sloan Management Review, the team — Julian Birkinshaw, Cyril Bouquet and J-L. Barsoux — reveal their surprising findings. Birkinshaw is a professor of strategic and international management at London Business School. Bouquet is a professor of strategy at IMD. Barsoux is a senior research fellow at IMD.

They discovered five persistent “myths” that haunt the innovation efforts of many companies.

Myth #1 is “the ‘eureka’ moment.”

According to this view, companies need to hire a bunch of insightful and contrarian thinkers, and provide them with a fertile environment, and lots of time and space, to come up with bright ideas.

The reality is different. If you think of innovation as a chain of linked activities — from generating new ideas through to commercializing them successfully — it is the latter stages of the process where problems occur.

When managers in 123 companies were asked to evaluate how effective they were at each stage in the innovation value chain, they indicated that, on average, they were good at generating new ideas, but their performance dropped for every successive stage of the chain.

The “eureka” myth explains why so many companies are drawn to big brainstorming events, with names such as ideation workshops and innovation jams. Such events can generate excitement and some useful ideas. But it’s not clear that they are the right way to build company-wide innovation capability.

The first problem is that companies underestimate the amount of work that is needed after the workshop is completed. IBM’s 2006 on-line Innovation Jam required a team of 60 researchers to sort through the 30,000 posts received over a 72-hour period.

The second problem is that workshops can be disempowering if the organization fails to act on the ideas generated. When pe...