Innovation to the Core: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 3rd, 2011 by bobmorris

Innovation to the Core: A Blueprint for Transforming the Way Your Company Innovates
Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson
Harvard Business School Press (2008)

I read this book when it was first published more than three years ago and recently re-read it while preparing to conduct an interview. The insights and counsel that Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson are even more relevant, hence more valuable than they were then.

Innovative thinking about innovative thinking

I am among those who agree with Michael Porter that “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do” and with Peter Drucker that “there is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” These two observations are directly relevant to the material that Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson present as they respond brilliantly to questions such as these:

1. How to create the preconditions for innovation?
2. How to establish a foundation of “novel strategic insights”?
3. How to generate a “torrent” of new opportunities for innovative thinking?
4. How to ask the right questions at the right time?
5. How to construct an “innovation architecture”?
6. How to select, schedule, manage, and leverage investments in innovation?
7. What does “driving to innovation” involve?
8. When doing so, how to balance supply and demand?
9. How to build a “systematic innovation capability”?
10. How to sustain innovation?

The Porter and Drucker observations correctly stress the importance of knowing what not to do as well as knowing what to do. There are countless examples throughout the history of business when brilliant execution had catastrophic consequences. I suspect this is what Gary Hamel had in mind when suggesting in the Introduction that in a world of ever-accelerating change, “innovation is the only insurance against irrelevance. In an environment of steadily decreasing friction and crumbling entry barriers, innovation is the only antidote to margin-crushing competition. And in a global economy where knowledge advantages dissipate ever more rapidly, innovation is the only brake on commoditization.”

However, as Skarzynski and Gibson so skillfully explain in this book, decision-makers in organizations that aspire to be more innovative, who now seek answers to questions such as those previously listed, must be innovative in how they think about the innovation process, not merely producing clever new products or devising intriguing new services. Hence the importance of what Skarzynski and Gibson characterize as creating the preconditions for innovation, establishing a foundation of “novel strategic insights,” and constructing an “innovation architecture.” They cite and examine exemplary companies such as GE, P&G, Whirlpool, and CEMEX to illustrate how they took somewhat different approaches to achieve these preliminary objectives. I agree with them that the new mindset must be developed at all levels and in all areas of an organization.

I commend Skarzynski and Gibson on their skillful use of various reader-friendly devices that facilitate, indeed accelerate frequent review of key points later. For example, at the conclusion of most chapters they provide (in combination) “innovation challenges” and “leadership imperatives” relevant to the chapter’s subject. Here are brief excerpts from Chapter 5, Innovating Across the Business Model, found on Page 122:

Innovation Challenge: “How do I keep my current business model fresh and innovative?”

One of four Leadership Imperatives provided: “Challenge each of the core assumptions of your current business model. Are yesterday’s assumptions still valid, or have they become today’s orthodoxies? Are they blind spots that your competition could exploit?”

These end-of-chapter sections summarize key points and should also be viewed as “gut checks” or “reality checks.” The questions posed should be frequently asked and then answered with both rigor and candor. I also appreciate Skarzynski and Gibson’s provision throughout the narrative of a series of several “Ask Yourself” checklists as well as various Figures that illustrate key points about “Hierarchy versus diversity” (Page 29), “Divergent phase of innovation architecture process” and “Convergent phase of innovation architecture process” (Page 141), “Experimentation matters – not `trial and error'” (Page 193), and “Whirlpool’s infrastructure” (Page 233).

Of course, all of the material provided in this book is essentially worthless if it remains ignored in a book that remains unread or unused on a shelf or atop a credenza. Moreoever, as Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson would be the first to point out, it would be a fool’s errand to try to apply everything that they recommend without making appropriate modifications. That said, I know of no other single source that offers more valuable information and counsel than does this one to those who are determined to transform the way their company innovates.


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