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Know (and Value) The Difference Between Routine and Innovative Work

Everyone wants to innovate
by Caitlin Schiller | Nov 2 2014

– It’s why 4 out of 10 companies now have Chief Innovation Officers and some pay Innovation consultants tens of thousands of dollars to work their magic. Innovative work is certainly the more glamorous type, but it’s only one part of any successful plan.

routine-innovative-work

In his book Weird Ideas That Work, Stanford Business School Professor Robert I. Sutton explains why routine work and innovative work are both important to a company’s success. Here’s how to recognize the differences between the two and understand why each is key to your business.

Routine Work

  • Purpose: To put existing ideas to good use.
  • Product: Successful products that are easily reproducible by following a procedure – like Big Macs or Volkswagens.
  • Philosophy: Precision, not trial-and-error, is the name of the game: experimentation is unwelcome, and the less garbage produced, the better.
  • Use: Ensuring a company’s short-term survival. It’s what fills the coffers today.

Routine tasks are routine because they’ve proven themselves valuable, but if a company wants long-term success, routine work won’t cut it and won’t keep it competitive. If business X comes up with a great new engine, business Y’s fine-tuned process for building the current status quo engine will be obsolete. This is where innovation comes in – and why those consultants make such big bucks.

Innovative Work

  • Purpose: To create entirely original ideas and products.
  • Product: First-of-kind objects or concepts – the light bulb, the iPhone. Heck, even fire.
  • Philosophy: Experimentation; mistakes are encouraged along with wild ideas. The goal is to create as much diversity as possible and to stay open to even farfetched possibilities.
  • Use: Driving a company’s long-term prospects.

Unlike routine work, innovation is unpredictable, but the likelihood of it happening certainly doesn’t need to be left to chance. Innovations are most likely to emerge when people are always busy experimenting with new ideas or building upon existing ones. It all boils down to consistency and volume. Take Mozart and Picasso, for example: they may have made it into the canon with a few masterpieces, but what’s not so often acknowledged is that these geniuses produced just as many – if not more – banal or bad pieces of work.

Create an innovation-friendly climate:

If you want your team to innovate, don’t evaluate them as you would someone doing routine work. Your experiments might produce a lot of  stuff that isn’t usable, and it’s often hard to predict when exactly they will come up with their first great idea. And remember: they might not always look productive on their way to that stroke of genius. After all, how productive would Archimedes have looked in the bathtub just before his famous “eureka” moment?


For more surprising-but-effective ideas, read Weird Ideas That Work, or cut to the chase with the 15-minute summary on Blinkist.

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