What price is innovation without strategy?
A view from Sue Unerman

What price is innovation without strategy?

Innovation is much prized. And for good reason, as the past two centuries have seen change at an unprecedented pace - a pace that seems only to be speeding up.

In the race for change, some have gained, some have lost. Some brands have thrived, some have died. Therefore, the single most important trait to have in your business, in your career, is surely innovation?

There is just something about the idea of innovation that appeals. It is a great "brand attribute" to have. The two most significant attributes that sell more product in most categories are innovation and value for money. Preferably both.

Yet innovation needs strategy to guide it or it can really be a waste of time and money (I'm sure we can all think of pointless innovations that we've wasted time over in the past few years).

The I word is a little like the C word (I mean creativity). Both are much talked about, much desired and can often be misdirected. Innovation, when not appropriate, is tiresome and possibly destructive. It leads to a misdirection of energy and will not lead to positive change.

The British Science Association has compiled a list of the top ten innovations that should have transformed their sector, or even the world we live in, but failed to change anything.

The list includes: Concorde, a masterpiece of technology but a commercial failure; microwave ovens, which was supposed to make us all chuck out our traditional ovens; high-rise buildings; the moon landings; magnetic trains; and, my personal favourite, as I can remember this being announced repeatedly as a game-changer, video conferencing. I know grandmothers who "video conference" their grandchildren more frequently than most of us use the facility. My last video conference was last summer. I'm in conference calls constantly, but my face just doesn't seem to be required.

We both like and fear innovation for deep-rooted reasons. The zone of proximal development is crucial to learning when we are children. This zone contains new stuff that is just about within our reach. Learning is play and, in this zone, innovation is fun and rewarding. Our animal brain, however, fears innovation. When something changes in the environment, our brains alert us to danger (think of a deer startled in the forest by the unexpected snap of a twig). In this way, innovation can terrify. Too much changing too soon and without proper attention to detail simply changes our stress levels, not our ability to progress.

Furthermore, one innovation is not enough. It must be embedded in the culture of your business. Henry Ford was one of the world’s greatest and most famous innovators but also a real conservative in many respects. He brilliantly intuited what would happen if an ordinary person was treated as a consumer and if their growing aspirations were met at scale. Having made his breakthrough in car manufacturing and led the development of industrialism, he failed to see that consumers' aspirations would not stop at his product and, for many years, fought against the innovations that his competitors created to overtake him, both in product novelty and in industrial relations.

A framework for innovation is essential – you have to change simply to stand still, let alone develop. You cannot sit on one great innovation and expect it to sustain your business. Nor can you afford innovation for the fun of it. It must be applied at scale and be purposeful, or it is not worth the candle.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom