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The Innovation Marathon

Michael Wynne

Keeping up with innovation in today’s global market is like competing in a marathon against runners from all over the world. Similar to preparing for a marathon, innovation takes a lot of motivation, time and practice.

A major difference, however, is that timing is not as critical for a marathon as it is for innovation. You can run a marathon any time you decide, but innovation has to be timed just right.

Is there a right time for innovation? There is no one answer to that question because so many factors are involved. Here are some:

  • Obsolescence: There are many aspects of a business that can become obsolete that the list may be endless. Obviously, the timing means acting before any aspect becomes obsolete.
  • Competition: Quite often, innovations by competitors are the most urgent source of innovation motivation. You are starting from behind. The challenge is to be first.
  • Economic cycles: When the market is going down, an innovation can save a company’s life. On the other hand, if the innovation costs more than existing products, it can be a disincentive for consumers during bad times.
  • Company life cycle: Where is the company in its life cycle? An innovation at the right time in a company’s life cycle also can be a real life saver.

Innovation can extend the life span of a product. Nylon is a classic example of product life cycle extension. In the 1930s, it appeared on the market as a substitute for the silk in women’s stockings. During World War II, it was used for parachutes. After the war, it was used to produce tires. New uses were found for nylon each time its life cycle was about to run out. The innovation timing has given nylon the nearest thing to product immortality.

In today’s fast-paced markets, product life cycles are becoming alarmingly short. It seems as though products go directly from birth to commodity, the equivalent of decline, in no time at all.

The pressure to innovate is tremendous and relentless. CEOs are facing a major challenge in trying to achieve greater than organic growth for their companies. They are looking to innovation and globalization to provide much needed growth.

The Marathon

It is not unusual to have 20,000–30,000 people show up for a marathon these days. Of course, not all of them hope to win. In fact, most just want to complete the marathon. How many companies are you competing with in your global innovation marathon? How many are better and faster innovators? Will your company make it to the finish line?

Maybe your company is already innovating. Good. But how good are you at it?

“Hitting the wall” is a term used to describe the overwhelming sense of fatigue many runners feel when they reach somewhere around mile 19 of a marathon. Many don’t make it beyond that point. Where is your innovation effort in this race? Have you hit the wall? Many innovation attempts reach a point where companies give up. Many companies invest large sums of money on R&D and innovation with very little success.

Focus is indispensable in both running a marathon successfully and generating successful innovation in business. The runner has to have the vision of the finish line present at all times. The same applies to innovation, but, unfortunately, many companies tend to lose sight of their finish line along the way. The clearer your vision of the end result, the more likely you are to achieve it.

Make your effort disciplined and consistent. You don’t just wake up and decide you are going to run a marathon that day. You start out running short distances, gradually increasing your mileage. Innovation is a continued effort as well. Progress may be in spurts but the effort isn’t. Expect short-term failures. In research and development of any type, there will be failures. The key is to learn from them and keep moving.

Set reasonable goals. Beginning runners don’t expect to win their first marathon, but they can plan to finish within a certain time frame. Innovation involves entering new territory where progress is achieved by reaching milestones along the way. A good innovation within a reasonable timeframe is better than the perfect innovation too late—remember, time is of the essence.

Innovation is not unique to the U.S. market. You can count on all your competitors around the world striving to come up with innovations of their own. In a marathon race, different competitors set different paces according to their physical capabilities and their experience. In a global innovation marathon, if you only look at competitors in your domestic market you will most likely underestimate the pace of your foreign competition.

Don’t limit your observation and learning to just the U.S. market. Make it a practice to get out as often as you can to visit foreign markets. In conducting global market research, chances are you’ll discover possibilities for new and current product lines.

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