Ambition’s good, but not enough

The northern Japanese city of Sapporo is known for many things: copious snow, the 1972 Winter Olympics, and white chocolate. It also boasts numerous statues of American academic and Civil War veteran, William Smith Clark. Hired by the Japanese government as a foreign adviser, Clark’s contribution to the scientific and economic development of Hokkaido, and Japanese culture generally, was immense and inspiring, epitomised by his parting words to students: “Boys, be ambitious”. In business, ambition has been around for as long as there have been buyers and sellers, but it was turbo-charged when BHAGs – big, hairy, audacious goals – entered corporate lingo in 1994 via Jim Collins’ and Jerry Porras’ classic, Built to Last. BHAGs may have endured but are being tested in an innovation-driven era of rapid change, fragmenting markets and high uncertainty. As innovation researchers Tim Kastelle and John Steen point out, ambition alone is no guarantee of results. “If you are highly committed to innovation, but still not very good at it, it leads to frustration, cynicism, and the perception of wasted effort,” they say. “On the other hand, if your innovation competence is high, but you are not very committed to innovating, then it is very likely that your success will fade over time due to lack of innovation process.” Open innovation adviser and author, Stefan Lindegaard, agrees it’s complex. “Yes, innovation is difficult and complicated,” Lindegaard says. “If not, then someone please explain to me why so many companies – most of them having smart executives as well as smart managers and employees – struggle in making innovation happen or have trouble meeting their innovation objectives.” Reflecting on some of the management issues dogging innovation, Monitor Group partners, Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff, highlight the lack of strategy behind too many innovation efforts. Companies with strong innovation records have several characteristics: clarity around their innovation ambition; a balanced portfolio of core, adjacent and transformational initiatives; and the tools and capabilities to make them happen. The key? “Rather than hoping that their future will emerge from a collection of ad hoc, standalone efforts that compete with one another for time, money, attention and prestige, they manage for ‘total innovation’,” say Nagji and Tuff.



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