Law of innovation inertia

Imagine if two people were given the same slides, reports, diagrams and the like, and were told to craft a unique strategy for the company. To do that, both would be put in separate rooms where they will be given 4 hours to work. After the 4 hours, both people come out from their respective room and present the same conclusion.

There are two ways to look at a situation like this:

  1. You think that since both came to the same conclusion, then it should be a good decision to make
  2. You think that something is terribly wrong

I assure you, most people go with option number 1.

It makes no sense to think that if we all read the same books, we should have equal performance. Also, it makes no sense to think that if we all follow the same training, step-by-step, that we will have an equal level of performance.

This dynamic is also part of the law of innovation inertia:

“Look, this (company, geography or organization) is innovative.  These are the things that seem to be different about them.  So, let’s do those ‘different things’ the same way, and we’ll be innovative too!”

Sound familiar?

There are books and blog posts about innovative companies and the lessons you should take away from them. No doubt these are important insights to discuss and understand, and if looked from a larger picture, a smart company will know how to implement those lessons.

For me, it is not so much about giving you examples from other companies so that you go and copy what they do. That, quite frankly, is stupid. There is more to it than mindless copying. It is more about providing context that there are other approaches. Not saying, this is THE WAY.

To innovate you must overcome the need for step-by-step recipes

Yes, I’m serious. As I’ve said before, there are plenty of methodologies that you can use to get started. But there is a much deeper reason for discounting methodologies…

Perception separates innovator from imitator.

That is why there is nothing linear about innovating. While other practitioners are infatuated by frameworks and templates, I believe template thinking does not equal innovation. Why? It goes back to my initial paragraph and how people will tend to come to the same conclusions.

Even with templates and frameworks.

I’ve seen companies implement innovation programs that are the mirror image of other companies. If anything, those innovation program documents look like a reverse-engineered playbook from Google, without the culture behind them. That makes them a waste of time.

While there are “innovation breeding” tactics that any type of company can use – quarterly hackathons, job swapping – the “why” behind them should be grounded on your own point of view. Sometimes,  better, deeper and frame-shifting questions are all that are needed to see things anew.

And that doesn’t require a methodology. Just good old fashioned curiosity!

Key takeaway

Innovation inertia is the equivalent of spinning your wheels without getting anywhere. Because even though you are adapting ideas that worked for someone else, that doesn’t mean they will work for you. This happens for a few reasons:

  • Companies copy tactics deliberately without consideration for strategy
  • Our own biases keep us from innovating
  • You benchmark without considering the larger context
  • A company doesn’t have a unique point of view about its future

UPDATE: Jeffrey Phillips and Tim Kastelle responded with their own thoughts in their respective blogs: Innovation copy and paste, The unknown knowns of innovation.

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  • I usually love templates because then you can be creative in filling the template. In this case, template means something else. I would say that a company’s benchmark and unique point of view can be the box or the parameters which can help foster creativity and innovation.

    • Hi David,

      As I understand your comment you are talking about constraints. Correct?

      As you know, strategy sets the constraints (what a company decides to do an not to do). So, a clearly defined strategy is a company’s own template. Which is great if this is the case.

      Most don’t have a strategy (their own template), so best case scenario is they copy whatever looks like a good strategy.

      Does this make sense?

      Thanks for the comment, David.


      • Yes, that makes sense and I totally agree. In my experience, many organizations either don’t have a strategy, a point of view and/or an understanding of their customers. Without these things they choose to copy other templates. Great post.

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  • This is a great post, Jorge, on a challenging topic.

    You are addressing the dichotomies and balance involved in discipline and procedure, in command and control, and in structure and freedom. These are fundamental and ever-present issues in everything we do, and are often broadly characterised as “top down” or “bottom up” approaches.

    Whether these distinctions exist because of inherent characteristics of the situations that we face, or because of properties of our minds that we apply to those situations, is an interesting question. Who knows whether we even have the capacity to distinguish one from the other?

    However, you evidently understand that, in our efforts to rationalise on the subject of innovation, we are pushing at that boundary.

    • Hi John,

      Glad you liked it.

      Yes. As you describe, I think this is THE innovation topic because it sits at the extreme of not innovating/changing at all (maybe that is why I keep coming back to it!). When this is the case, as a response, it is quite obvious what people/companies will do: copy what works for others.

      But, this is its own form of weird inertia because of the contradiction of not “following the herd” vs “breaking out”.

      To most, option 1 looks like a safe bet (which isn’t predictable at all) because others are doing the same. While option 2 is a risk (not predictable either) because no one is doing it.

      Thanks for the comment, John.


  • Guest

    As always, a thought provoking blog post. On the flip side, design and learning templates can provide enormous benefits. Given that they already provide structure, templates can save time and decrease costs while providing flexibility in utilizing and evaluating data. When it comes to rapid prototyping, concept testing, and even programming, templates can help you quickly create many different iterations from a single root declaration or theory without incurring costs associated with virtualization. In many cases, templates can be helpful when used correctly — as a starting point — requiring further customization and adapation based on context, construct, situation, and unique variables. It’s somewhat idealistic and cost-prohibitive to propose that every innovation project and initiative must start from scratch or ground zero. Apple didn’t think that way under Jobs — Jobs discovered fledgling ideas, borrowed or bought them, and built upon them. Keep the smart posts coming!

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