Innovate and Die?

Posted: September 26, 2014 by Ian Gee in Incentives, Leadership, Learning


I guess we have all heard the saying “innovate or die!” but I am wondering if there are times when the maxim should become ‘innovate and die’? My thinking about this topic came about as a result of a really interesting chat the other day with Adriana Ramos Hernandez, an MSC student at UCL. She wanted to explore innovation in management and ways of working.   We talked about how the workplace is changing and the challenges this presents for both organisations and the people who work in them. Towards the end of our chat, Adriana suddenly said, “Well, I guess it is a case of “innovate or die?”   Out of nowhere I thought about how innovation may not be the “Holy Grail” and has the potential to either severely wound you and your organisation or may, in some circumstances, even kill your organisation stone dead and lead to you losing your job! In essence, a passion for innovation rather than taking your organisation to the next stage of its evolution becomes something that stops it dead in the water.


Anybody who has been reading the papers in the last couple of years will have seen what appears to be a tsunami of stories detailing corporate bad behaviour and business scandals. Here is one recent example; a UK pay day loan company c, has had to pay out over £2 million in compensation for sending out letters to people, who were defaulting on their payments, from a fake solicitors firm. A firm they had in essence ‘made up’. The letters threatened legal action if people did not pay back their loans. They were charging people £40 for these letters; adding the charge to their ever growing debt.  You can read more about it here. Another good example would be the Libor scandals, have a look here for more details. Basically a number of national and international banks and other financial institutions were caught rigging the interbank lending rate and have been fined by regulators sums that run into the hundreds of millions of pounds.

I started to wonder if, before they were found out, did the individuals and companies concerned consider these to be wonderful corporate innovations? Ideas that would have a direct and positive impact on the bottom line and give the company a ‘leading edge’ over the competition? The kinds of innovations people get lovely bonuses and recognition at appraisal time for? The kinds of innovations that other people look jealously on and wish they had come up with?

But what happens when the innovation turns out to be unethical? It is very interesting to read the reactions of the senior leaders to being found out. In the cases mentioned here CEO’s and senior leaders lost their jobs, the chairs of a number of boards lost their jobs and millions of pounds were wiped off the value of the companies involved. In addition and much harder to measure is the impact and damage the scandals have had on their brands. These innovations could literally have killed the companies.

If you do a web search for ethics and innovation what you will find is mostly linked to technological, medical and scientific innovation with very little about the relationship of ethics to organisational or managerial innovation. Of course from an OD point of view we would be looking at issues of culture and values. But I am wondering if in the arena of ethics and innovation there is a gap that we in OD should start to explore and fill and if so how? What do you think?



  1. Scott says:

    As always, provoking me to think and reflect. I’m not sure if it’s about “missing something”… I think that Andy Grove’s “inflection points” book while w Intel crosses similar territory to your “and die” piece – i.e. in the bleeding edge reality of innovation, especially innovation borne of necessity – some make it and some don’t.

    What I do hear in there from an OD perspective, is hanging in there as practitioners and listening for the themes, patterns and language that distinguish “and die” from “or die”. Blackberry is proof that the prognosis of certain death is not a truism – and so, hopefully would it be for innovation. It is necessary. It doesn’t necessarily lead to dissolution.

  2. tanya arroba says:

    Hi Ian, echoing the comment above, as ever a thought provoking piece – and I like the way you have taken two topics that by themselves have received a lot of thought and research, namely corporate ethics and innovation and brought them together. From my work I know of ethics being linked to political skill, the need for integrity in political behaviour in organisations. That has focused on the use of power in organisations. You have linked ethical consideration to business practice in a far closer way and in particular have raised the spectre of how innovations are evaluated and what the criteria are for judging an innovation to be worth pursuing.
    Your link of ‘innovate and die’ I think is really good as it takes the focus a layer deeper than current thinking about ‘bad practice’, the well known public examples, such as the ones you quote. You raise the question of how did these ‘bad practices’ get initiated, what is the decision making process, and by whom? And behind that is the spectre of collusion – and other shadowy aspects of organisational life.
    Definitely an idea worth pursuing, to challenge the current acceptance of ‘ innovate or die’ and raise awareness of the need for integrity in all aspects of organisational life

  3. Adriana says:

    Dear Ian, it is such an interesting topic what you have raised. Back in México I realised that precisely what boycotts any attempt to produce a positive innovation in many cases is the concept of ethics and how stable is the political environment where innovation takes place to be able to support true innovative initiatives. It also makes me think about transparency in information because it impacts the business practice. Sometimes the organisations have a clear idea of how innovative initiatives are going to be launched but the idea is corrupted in the practice and the outcome is devastating. I have observed how this happens internally due to ridiculous pressure over employees to keep the organisation ahead of competition. I think ethics in organisational innovation should be a topic of greater concern in Organisations especially in this 21st century.
    Thank you!

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