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Innovate or Perish: The New Darwinism

Some time ago, Steve Jobs was quoted as saying, "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower;" and that statement has never been more meaningful than it is today. At a time when the even the most fundamental elements of business success are being reevaluated and redefined, one thing becomes increasingly clear: innovation is no longer a "nice to have;" it's a "must have." It's what we call The Innovation Imperative; if innovation distinguished between leaders and followers in the recent past, today it increasingly distinguishes between survivors and the barely breathing. Innovation is the new Darwinism in business; it's no longer "survival of the fittest," but "survival of the most innovative."

The choice facing companies today is simple: innovate, or perish. Those that will survive today's economic environment and succeed in tomorrow's are those willing to continually reinvent themselves, their products, their brands, their processes-in short, the way they do business. Many organizations are even looking for innovative ways to innovate, replacing traditional brainstorming techniques with new, more inventive processes like SmartStorming and 3-D Ideation. Introduce the world to the new new thing, the bleeding edge technology, the better mousetrap, the reinvented paradigm and there's a good bet you'll remain ahead of the curve and be around to reap the rewards in the future.

The Innovators

The topic of innovation certainly isn't new; it's been the business buzz word for several years now. We've all read about it in business magazines and heard the reports on financial news stations. Harvard Business School professors lecture on it at conferences and scores of books address it. And the same companies are consistently held up as the elite innovators-Apple, Google, Nintendo, JetBlue, Toyota, Target (and today again, WalMart). And there are hundreds and even thousands more you've never heard of, visionary companies that are  seizing the opportunities (yes, opportunities) presented by the current economic phase, breaking the rules, establishing new standards, delivering incredible value, and  then starting that process all over again...and again, and again. These companies come in all shapes and sizes, and exist in every industry-technology, biotech, pharma, automotive, consumer packaged goods, retail, you name it, they're out there, outthinking and outdoing everyone else in their fields. Whatever they're playing field, they all have one thing in common: they innovate.

Three Not-So-Easy choices

Today, businesses face three choices. In many cases, none may be easy to make. 

1. Actively innovate. Stay at the forefront of their industry and their competitive set, doing whatever it takes to meet constantly evolving market conditions and consumer demand.

2. React. Wait for others to set the standard and play catch-up, forever scrambling to match the latest development introduced by market leaders.

3. Do nothing. Stay right where they are, do their best to survive, and almost certainly stagnate, eventually drifting into irrelevance, and finally, extinction.

Innovate or perish.

Innovation of the Individual

By the way, the innovation imperative doesn't only apply to businesses; it's a challenge facing individuals, as well, again, even more so today. Each and every one of us who collects (or hopes to collect) a paycheck has at least one consumer, the person responsible for our professional future. Individual employees must also continually reassess their approach and establish their value, or face the same dismal fate as their corporate counterparts. In fact, while we are currently facing increasing jobless numbers, still more than 90% of the workforce remains employed. While in many cases circumstances beyond the control of the individual are responsible, what might that 10% do, innovatively, that could help them make it back into the 90%?

Work Your Innovation Chops

The time to develop an innovation orientation is not tomorrow or next week or in the third quarter. It's now.

Begin actively searching for new, better, more productive ways of doing things. Utilize proven innovation tools-advanced ideation techniques, new technologies, breakthrough processes. Adopt an "innovation mindset," asking yourself every day, "How could I do this better?" Turn yourself and your organization into an Innovation Machine. You will not only survive this evolutionary upheaval, you will thrive.