INNOVATION, RENOVATION AND CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT Why not innovate? [Augustin Argelich]

To innovate is to do something in a manner that is different from the habitual or the conventional. Innovation must pursue the aim of making a process more efficient through the utilization of less resources, without wasting time or energy. To innovate should be a natural process: permanent and consubstantial to the human condition. Certainly no one questions the necessity of innovation; but the reality is that it costs to innovate. A moment of honest introspection raises several difficult questions: Why don’t we innovate? How do we solve the problem of innovation?

Christopher Columbus was an innovator. He discovered America—by accident. He was looking for a shorter route to the Indias, not a new continent; he merely questioned the established manner in which a certain thing was done and searched for a more efficient solution. He was open-minded, and he experienced success: not the success he hoped for, but one that was greater than he ever could have. His innovative enthusiasm changed humanity, society and history.

Now, we are a society of little innovation, of little ambition, and this attitude does not serve us well. And why not? Because it generates poverty. A clear example of a system that breeds immobility and poverty is that of the communist societies, which remains forever ideologically and technologically anchored. One need only to observe the cars that still circulate around Cuba. Why don’t we innovate? The answer is simple: not innovating is more comfortable. Innovating costs more than doing nothing. The path of non-innovation brings immediate sensations of reward—satisfying, but fleeting. Innovation, like anything worth anything in life, is risky and requires effort. We can mess up. We can lose money and time and even our jobs. The attitude of no risk, of no commitment, is widespread. Complicating life gets bad press. It is the negative society that fears failure. We have been educated in negativity: Be careful to make no mistake. Don’t let yourself get hurt. We punish mistakes too much, and we rarely reward success. Don’t stand out. Be discrete. Don’t bother people. We do not accept that to improve, we must struggle and digest many failures. It is okay to fail, to make mistakes. We must forgive seven times out of seven. We must aim to prosper seven times out of seven, or rather, all the time. Change always represents risk. So does life. Remaining cooped up inside, too, comes with a bit of risk. We must remember that failure is not a correct action; it is a sign that we must stop and do something that we should have done before. But there is also the sin of omission.

Doing nothing is always an option to consider when faced with a problem, but it is almost never the right one. Certainly not in situations of crisis, where inaction generates catastrophe. Moreover, when we analyze this option of doing nothing, of continuing on the same path, we see the consequences that this alternative presents us. It is advisable to explore this option in order to be able to see that doing nothing almost always carries more risk than doing something. Unnecessary delay in the decision-making process only makes the problem more difficult to solve later on. In English, the word for this is “procrastinate.” It’s an ugly verb, reminiscent of the verb “castrate,” and suggesting a total lack of ambition.

It’s not bad to be ambitious; on the contrary, it’s important to fixate on objects of ambition, because it enables one to prosper. This is important because, generally speaking, if one has great ambitions that are not realized, those unrealized goals present a whole new opportunity: the opportunity to try again, to focus one’s energy on continuous improvement until, one day, those ambitions come to fruition. Where ambition is concerned, there are several important things to keep in mind. First, ambition must not be confused with greed. Second, if goals are reached too quickly, they probably don’t deserve to be called ambitious. It’s similar to the concept of stress. Doctor Mario Alonso Puig explains it in his book, Vivir es una necesidad urgente (“to live is an urgent need”): there is positive stress, eustress, and negative stress, distress. He explains that without positive stress, it is impossible to survive. In the same way, there is such a thing as positive and negative ambition. Without ambition, without the desire to prosper, without innovation, our companies will not survive. It is necessary to eliminate the negative stress and maximize the positive, and the same is true of ambition. There is such a thing as healthy ambition, and we have to encourage it and nurture it. More than that—we have to reward he or she who applies it, to the innovator, to the entrepreneur, to the businessman and woman. Business in our society has a terrible reputation, and one that it merits. But the absolute majority of business people is comprised of those who will work far more than asked and who will ask for far less than they deserve.

It’s better to climb a mountain on a smooth slope, for the possibility of successfully reaching the top is greater. The path may be longer, it may require more walking, but it is more sure. Evolution versus revolution, constant improvement, not going to stumble. It is critical that we implement a culture of constant innovation, of permanent evolution.

That’s what we should be doing: analyzing how the world changes and how that change affects us, so that we can try to anticipate it. This is a slalom racer’s strategy; when he confronts a gate, he will have to have already made the turn. Otherwise, he loses his tracking, skips the gate, and is disqualified. That is to say, the problem must be addressed in advance. The skier always looks forward and prepares for the next gate, prepares to overcome the next obstacle. All companies should have a strategic team that analyzes the evolution of society and competition and prepares for it through the application of innovative reforms to its products and services. Analysis. We need analysis.

All of creation starts with imagination; we visualize it first in our minds. There must be someone in each company that can visualize its future. For instance, in North America, it’s a compliment to call someone a visionary. Here, it sounds like a show-off. We must cultivate the earth every year, fertilize it, sow it, irrigate it and harvest from it. It’s the circle of life, constant renewal, constant innovation: to wonder, to think and to meditate, to search for the best solution, to design alternatives, to compare options, to decide, to act, to enforce, to analyze results, to make the necessary adjustments . . . to go back to square one.

Why, then, do we lack the motivation to pursue innovation, when it is the most natural option, the most intelligent, the most logical? Life is just like this, a constant force, a walk, a daily improvement, an innovation. We have no choice but to innovate; we must accept life, accept the reality as it is, not as we would like it to be. Life is fully of opportunities, but we must strive for them. “Since I have a dominant position in the market, I can afford to be inefficient” is the attitude of dead regimes. Reality—this circle of life—will come to an end if it is not defended against positions such as this one, if the belief is not upheld that leadership should be earned, not maintained for personal prerogative and by unjust means.

“We only really change when we realize the consequences of not doing so,” as Dr. Mario Alonso Puig says (translation mine). The same holds true with our companies. The risk we run is that we realize those consequences too late. The signs that we must change are there—let’s not refuse to see them. To think that there is no need to change is a bad attitude. An innovator doesn’t welcome risk; she is a leader that knows how to manage and who accepts that we live in an uncertain world, and has learned that the worst course of action is no action at all. The culture of denial is destructive. To enter the circle of innovation is a wise and sensible decision, because innovation is, like the dawn and dusk of life, forever changing. No day is the same as the one before it.

[Agustín Argelich]