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by Eric B. Schultz, former CEO Sensitech, Venture Partner at Ascent
There’s no denying that we live in the Age of Innovation. If you’re an entrepreneur in the midst of building a company, chances are good you’re soaked in a constant downpour of advice on innovation, all of which ends with the bone-chilling admonition, roughly translated, “Innovate or die.”
I bumped into a blog post the other day that stated unequivocally, “The opposite of innovation is procrastination.”
Sometimes, we know, really powerful ideas have a way of taking on a life of their own. Never forget the little boy who whacked his piggybank with a hammer and watched all the money fall out. He then wandered around the house smashing everything, hoping more money would fall out.
Sometimes it feels like we’ve done the same thing to innovation, turning it from our most powerful tool into a hammer of destruction. The problem is–and really good entrepreneurs know this–not everything wants to be innovated. And, entrepreneurs who can’t stop innovating long enough to run their business risk driving their teams away and their companies into the ground.
Let’s go back to the source, economist Joseph Schumpeter, whose work in the first part of the 20th century really defined our modern view of innovation and entrepreneurism. (For example, he coined the phrase “creative destruction.”) Schumpeter described innovation as “carrying out new combinations”–a new product, process, or even form of organization–and then made clear that there must be more. An entrepreneur who brings an innovation to market, he wrote, must then build his business. Innovation is discontinuous. Sporadic. Lumpy. And Schumpeter says very clearly, “Being an entrepreneur is not a profession and as a rule not a lasting condition.”
When McDonald’s introduced the Egg McMuffin in 1972 it not only created one of its iconic products, but completely reinvented the breakfast category in fast food. As remarkable as this innovation was, however, the execution was just as critical. McDonalds had to teach its far-flung organization how to make an Egg McMuffin perfectly, in thousands of stores around the world, every day of the year. For a few food scientists working on the Sausage McMuffin, innovation never stopped–but for most of the organization, “innovating” the Egg McMuffin after its launch into stores only meant broken process and unhappy customers.
What does this all mean for the modern entrepreneur? Small, emerging businesses must do two things exceptionally well: find their business model, and execute on that model. The first is full of product, market, customer and channel innovation. The second is full of careful business planning, strong tactical leadership and sound execution. It’s simply impossible to know if a “new combination” can be successful if individual customers can’t make it work reliably in their own businesses.
This might well mean throttling back on your innovation mojo. New, tentative customers don’t want their delivered service innovated every week. Sales executives don’t want their compensation plans innovated every month. And engineers shun the CEO who changes product direction on the back of a napkin at lunch a couple of times a month.
If you’re not a good, steady, practical operator, find someone who is. Because the opposite of innovation isn’t procrastination; it’s doing all of the other important, hard work that goes into building a business. Put the hammer away for a few minutes and see what good things can happen.