The cult of innovation seems healthy on the face of it. In a free market, after all, innovation underpins competitive advantage, which in turn undergirds profitability. Being indistinguishable from everyone else means operating with a microthin profit margin, if not outright losses. So why not try to innovate everywhere – to let, as Chairman Mao famously put it, a thousand flowers bloom?
Here’s why not: For every thousand flowers, you get a million weeds. Innovation is by its very nature wasteful. It demands experimentation, speculative investment, and failure, all of which entail high costs and risks. Indeed, it is innovation’s intrinsic uncertainty that gives it its value. High risks and costs form the barriers to competition that give successful innovators their edge. If innovation were a sure thing, everyone would do it equally well, and its strategic value would be neutralized. It would become just another cost of doing business.
But the high costs and risks also make discretion and prudence paramount. The most successful companies know when to take a chance on innovation, but they also know when to take the less glamorous but far safer route of imitation. Although imitation is often viewed as innovation’s homely sibling, it’s every bit as central to business success. Indeed, it’s what makes innovation economically feasible.