Innovation is widely touted as a value worth pursuing or even a corporate cure-all. Successful innovators hold a special mystique as the drivers of change and progress in our society. However, innovation is also costly, difficult and disruptive. Before mindlessly pushing for innovation at all times in all spheres, it is worth considering both the costs and the benefits of innovation so innovators can be strategically placed in the organization.
The most obvious disadvantages innovators create occur within their own organizations or departments. Seeking new solutions requires experimentation, failure and, therefore, high costs with uncertain return. Furthermore, innovation disrupts existing patterns and can cause a significant dip in productivity and morale as workers adjust to the innovation. If the new idea will truly be a long-term improvement, this may be worthwhile, but constant innovation for its own sake may keep a company from finding its groove.
Innovators can cause disruption to the outside world. Changing the way a business runs can break down existing relationships with suppliers, business partners or customers. Too much change over too short a time can cause a loss of consistency or credibility, especially if the nature and purpose of the innovation is communicated poorly. Innovators may be especially problematic if they insist on the value of an idea the rest of the company refuses to implement. The consequences can range from time-wasting arguments to fundamentally destabilizing the company.
At the same time, skillful innovators can leave competitors in the dust by entirely redefining the market. Whether by creating new products and services, adding efficiency to existing processes or even creating whole new markets, innovators have the potential to radically improve their companies' effectiveness and profitability. Furthermore, a highly visible and inspiring innovator -- think Steve Jobs -- can become a symbol of the company and personally boost brand recognition and customer loyalty by consistently delivering exceptional improvements.
Beyond the obvious advantages of increased efficiency, technological progress or social contributions, the effect of a skillful innovator on the culture of a company can be monumental. Innovators who understand how to inspire and train others can begin to cultivate a corporate mindset that fosters personal ownership, creativity and contribution. Innovation for its own sake can be costly and confusing, but useful ideas skillfully applied can redefine a business, an industry or even society as a whole.