People think of innovation as a fast-moving process that brings about large-scale change almost overnight.
Sam Ford and Federico Rodriguez Tarditi, writing for Harvard Business Review, propose an alternative, low-key approach which takes effect gradually over a much longer term. It’s called “slow innovation”.
FAST OR SLOW – A CULTURAL DIFFERENCE
The distinction between fast and slow innovation parallels that between fast and slow culture. In a fast, rapidly innovating culture we see businesses monitoring social data to spot trends and seek out all that’s “cool”.
Firms are ready to react immediately. Their advertising uses the latest words before they even reach the dictionary. Digital news and entertainment provider Buzzfeed is a good illustration, with its sudden rise to prominence and its constant reshaping.
Slow innovation involves looking further afield and detecting steadily emerging patterns which may be just as transformative to businesses, but in the more distant future. It allows you to make gradual adjustments to capture opportunities that others may not notice until much later.
Think of self-driving cars. They don’t affect you today, but some industries, businesses and jobs will eventually be transformed by them. By adopting a slow innovation approach, you can prepare strategies to succeed in that new world.
Ford and Tarditi point to World Wrestling Entertainment as a business that has successfully applied slow innovation. Its move from a pay-per-view TV model to setting up its own digital subscription service may have seemed like a sudden response to market trends. In reality, it was based on 20 years of observation in which it noticed audiences developing activities such as video sharing.
OBSTACLES TO LONG-TERM THINKING
Getting your organisation to adopt and invest in a slow innovation strategy isn’t easy. Going against the normal timeframes and scope of company plans is hard to sustain and can easily be dropped when a new leader takes over.
On a quarterly or even annual basis, its effects may not be very noticeable. Nor will the negative impacts of the company’s current thinking – which slow innovators wish to change – appear to be a significant problem on that timescale.
There may be little incentive for leaders to divert time away from more instantly gratifying activities toward a shared initiative of which they will be catalysts, rather than the owners. If the big transformation eventually happens, few will recognise that it was the result of a slow innovation process over many years.
The authors reflect on their time spent with Univision, a US media company serving Hispanic and Latino Americans. Their 20-month mission to champion the slow innovation approach, which was promising but ultimately frustrating, drew the following lessons:
1) Set expectations carefully. Stakeholders need to understand what slow innovation is and how it works. Avoid accepting unrealistic KPIs which will make it an obvious target for cuts.
2) Lay claim to your wins. Others may well take the glory when the transformation succeeds, but make sure the contribution of your slow innovation work is recognised internally.
3) Build internal relationships. Detecting patterns and applying that knowledge to your colleagues’ work depends on mutual awareness and trust.
4) Don’t expect to be the great discoverer of all-important patterns. Someone looking from a different vantage point may have a better view. Seek information from others and then interpret it in relation to your teams.
5) Start small. Be a catalyst for interest and investment within other departments. Focus your own budget on a strong core team, on strategic relationships externally, and on educating and inspiring.
6) Remember seeing isn’t observing, and hearing isn’t listening. Make these into active and analytical processes that identify patterns and consider their meaning in a cultural context.
7) Create situations that generate fresh thoughts, questions and answers. That may mean bringing your teams into contact with outside players, to explore connections and stimulate ideas. Put them in situations and locations outside their comfort zone.
INVESTING FOR LONG-TERM SUCCESS
Rapid innovative reaction will always be important too, but Ford and Tarditi are convinced that slow innovation holds tremendous potential for businesses. If it is to succeed in your company, you will need to make it part of your organisation’s culture. That means looking at long-term issues around your reputation, focus and business model – even if they don’t appear to be impacting upon this quarter’s success.