Fifty Shades of Innovation

Fifty Shades of Innovation

Publishers need to stop flirting with innovation and tie the knot if they’re to avoid inevitable demise.  So says Elvin Turner, an innovation consultant to brands in disruptive industries.

“No-one has a clue what to do,” a global publishing CEO recently told me during a conference break.  “We’re permanently waiting for someone else to make the first move in case we get it wrong.”

Innovation is looking for a new kind of publisher.  One that can overcome the fear that simultaneously sparks the desire for innovation whilst paralysing any meaningful progress.

No wonder the most frequent question I’m asked is not why should we innovate, or what should we innovate, but how do we actually do innovation?   “It’s like being a stroke victim,” I recently overheard. “We just can’t seem to make ourselves do the things we know we need to do.”

Working with leaders in some of the world’s most disruptive industries including music, gaming, telecoms, IT, and publishing, I’ve observed four consistent factors that have the greatest impact on innovation performance.


#1 Stop Dating Innovation

The number one reason why innovation fails inside organisations is that no-one wants to commit to her.  

She has a plenty of sex-appeal and is a valuable notch score on the career bedstead.  But get serious?  Commit?  You’ve got to be kidding.  She asks too many awkward questions and wants you to make changes that you’re just not ready for yet. Let’s just keep dating and not rush things…

It’s what I hear in almost every company and every industry and it’s one of the biggest paradoxes in business: Innovation has long been a top three priority for CEOs but few want to follow her down the aisle.  They know long-term innovation is essential but it comes at a comfort zone price that feels too high to pay.

The Ultimate Lie Detector

The truth is that innovation is your ultimate corporate performance coach and if you’re willing, she will help you jettison anything that’s doing harm to the business.  That’s what makes people nervous.  

She’s a lie detector who asks the questions that everyone else is avoiding.  She is only interested in creating value and is suspicious of anything that doesn’t deliver the strategy.  She’s the ultimate business detox that flushes out the subtle poisons holding back higher levels of performance.  And that’s what keeps her single.

I believe that if publishers want to look back with pride on one of the most significant eras in the industry’s history, they need to commit fast.  They must adopt a permanent state of detox if they’re to defy the ever-shortening odds of still being in business 20 years from now.

CEOs in particular must count the cost of commitment in every dimension and then be deliberate about finding a way to sustainably carry those costs.  The alternatives aren’t worth considering. 

#2 Keep Dating Innovation

Choosing to develop a culture of innovation is one thing.  To continue choosing it is quite another, and most executives underestimate what it takes.  

I recently helped two CEOs develop innovation strategies and understand the commitment required to sustain performance.  But after a few months of remarkable progress, complacency started to kick in.  “Maybe this innovation thing isn’t so hard after all…”

It’s the downfall of far too many promising innovation stories, especially in good times.  Why?  Because innovation, by nature, is forward-looking and knows that nothing lasts forever.  And that sets up an inevitable argument with anything that is too deeply rooted in today.  Even the most invincible business models expire, but when balance sheets are bulging, no-one wants to hear that.  Why mess with something that’s working?  

Before you know it, innovation’s crown is slipping and it’s time to pack her back in the cupboard until she’s needed again.  Which is usually within 6-12 months by which time the competition has usually caught up and you’re back to the drawing board again.

Smart CEOs never mothball a culture of innovation.  They welcome the ‘annoying’ questions and insights that it provokes, even at the peak of profitability.  They actively seek to disrupt their own business models.  “If you don’t burn down your own business every year yourself, a competitor will supply the match,” Andy Billings, Electronic Arts’ VP of Profitable Creativity recently told me during an interview.

#3 Focus: Innovation’s Killer App

One of the first things I ask a leadership team that’s serious about innovation is: What matters most?   As a hugely valuable and strategic asset for the company, what deserves the board’s time and attention?  The conversations generally provoke a degree of embarrassment as seasoned executives often confess to spending hours in board meetings discussing crucial issues such as the colour of new restaurant chairs.  In fact, I find that most executives spend most of their time focusing on issues and decisions that are well below their pay grade.

Why is this a problem? I’m not exaggerating when I say that your most precious innovation asset is your focus.  Whenever leaders choose to focus on tactical issues they rob the organisation of the strategic thinking that drives a high-performing culture of innovation.  

99% of people who work inside publishers are rewarded for delivering results against today’s business model.  Bureaucracy has a vested self-interest in preserving what works today.  It’s not a deliberate conspiracy, but it’s powerful enough to slowly suffocate innovation, or at least severely limit it, in every publisher.

That means leaders inside publishers are obligated to choose tomorrow continually, recalibrating the resources of the organisation against future opportunities instead of today’s cash cows.  

Life After Amazon?

Managers inside publishers must also resist the temptation to over-emphasize innovation on the ‘usual suspects’.  Sure, the digital-Amazon broth that everyone’s forced to drink is an innovation priority, but it’s creating the ‘five-year-old football’ syndrome: The whole pack fixated on chasing the same ball.  

Is there life after Amazon and if so how could you emerge triumphant?  Yes, digital is a revolution but when the sea calms to what extent will you have simply survived or experimented your way forward to disrupt the waters again for everyone else?

The burning question for leaders and managers is: How much time do you spend thinking strategically about the future? According to the Harvard Business Review (July 2013), innovation-focused CEOs spend 20-40% of their time understanding and supporting new initiatives.  Amazon’s Jeff Bezos claims that three days of his week comprise “unstructured time” that he uses to think, dream, test ideas and talk to customers.

In a recent workshop with a large publisher, the leadership team needed less than an hour to identify some changes that would free up 20% of their time to focus on strategic innovation issues.  It’s an hour that has the potential to transform their future.

#4 Dream Big Then Think Small

The desire for certainty in decision-making, combined with an acute fear of failure creates innovation paralysis inside most organisations. Yet as our honest CEO said at the start of this blog, no-one knows what the future holds, so how can there be any certainty in decision-making?

I’ve been part of a quiet innovation revolution that is tackling this issue inside a range of companies (including publishers) who have borrowed a handful of smart tools used by internet start-ups and entrepreneurs.  These companies have no data with which to make decisions, so they empower staff to continually run tiny experiments that generate new data, which in turn informs new experiments and innovation. 

Got an idea for a new business book app or workflow process?  Don’t spend £20,000 on a prototype app to get user feedback.  Instead, frame a killer question around the learning that you want to achieve and ask employees to design a £20 experiment that gives you the same data.  Sounds unlikely?  I watch it happen regularly in workshops across every industry, including publishing.  Based on Eric Ries’ Lean Start Up methodology it simultaneously creates an intuitive innovation process for all employees whilst disabling innovation’s cultural nemesis: the fear of failure. 

If you need some short-term innovation wins, smart experimentation is a free way to inject rocket fuel into your organisation.

Trample The Fear of Failure

One final word of encouragement: If you’re still reading this it’s possible that you care enough to do something significant around innovation.  As a rule of thumb that puts you above 80% of the people in the publishing industry.  

Now, put these things into practice and you’ll probably find yourself in the top 5% of publishers in terms of innovation performance.

It’s OK not to have a clue about the future.  No-one has.  Smart publishers who commit wholeheartedly to innovation will experiment their way forward and trample the fear of failure under their feet.


Elvin Turner is Innovation Director at DPA ( and can be contacted at:


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