Vijay Govindarajan or VG is one of those rare people that can distil complex processes down into simple ideas. Last week he was launching his new book “The Other Side of Innovation” in a whirlwind tour of London. He kicked off with an interview with star-BBC-interrogator John Humphries on the Today program early in the morning and was still going strong at a launch event of his publishers at eleven clock that night.
VG’s idea is that it is not Edison’s 1% of inspiration that makes great innovation but the 99% perspiration – and yet most organisations do not realise this. Ideas are fun, sexy and cheap while implementing them is laborious and mostly left to the “little people”. But he makes clear that it is in the execution that the opportunity really lies.
All great teachers tell great stories – and VG has been elected best teacher at Tuck Executive Education at Dartmouth several occasions. He illustrated the path of innovation with reference to how the high jump record was systematically improved across the 20th century. At the turn of the century jumpers were still using the same technique they had in Greek competitions 2500 years before, essentially a hurdling manoeuvre known as “the scissors”. This was modified in the early 20th century by pushing the torso horizontal in what was known as the eastern cut-off which developed into the western roll. Heights gained went up by 30 cms to over two metres.
In the 1950’s an American started twisting his body stomach first over the pole in what was called “the straddle” and another 30cm leap in height was achieved. However in the mid-1960’s Dick Fosbury innovated further with the Fosbury flop, where radically he crossed the pole first with his head and the body following after.
This was only possible since landing mats were vastly larger and softer than previously used – but it allowed heights considerably higher than that of the jumper to be achieved. In the course of 60 years the high jump record had risen by nearly 30%. The notable thing about all these developments was that initially the new technique produced no better results than the old one.
This meant that it was only determined outsiders who continued to use and develop them, as the current leaders believed their way that had got them to the top was not going to be surpassed by some new, eccentric method. And they got left behind.
VG’s point being that insiders are unlikely to be innovators – you have to innovate from the outside. This is echoed in this week’s Economist where, describing innovative new jet engine designs, they say “as with any radical change to an existing technology…a large installed baser of expertise together with lots of regulation mean it can be hard for a new-comer to make headway.”