Innovating for the innovators

Innovation, a concept often hailed as the holy grail of business success, does not always result in an intended outcome. Take, for example, the development of leaded petrol; originally intended as an alternative to ammonia in refrigerators, it has ended up causing gaping holes in the O-Zone layer. Or Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber’s invention, cheap nitrogen fertilizer, Zyklon B, intended as an insecticide, it became the preferred method of execution in gas chambers during the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, the law of unintended consequences is applied not just to the past. News this week that scientists have discovered ways to communicate with individuals that are unable to talk has a similar feel of an invention that may result in unintended uses, for example to interrogate potential criminals. However, whilst innovations can be potentially dangerous, a lack of innovation is also dangerous; a lesson that AstraZeneca staff have unfortunately learned the hard way this week.

On Thursday AstraZeneca announced that they will be axing 7,300 jobs worldwide. The company cited a weak economy and competition from generic drugs, but a closer examination of the problem also reveals a fragile product pipeline, or in other words, a lack of innovation.

Over the next few years AstraZeneca faces the loss of a number of patents on several of its best selling drugs, with no new patents expected. It is extremely expensive to get a new drug to a market and because the NHS and other health providers around the world are being squeezed financially, pharmaceutical companies must ensure the best processes, procedures and systems are in place to guarantee effectiveness and efficiency.

And it is not just AstraZeneca that have suffered from an inability to innovate recently. The sad but inevitable consequence of Kodak’s stubborn insistence not to follow the digital trend resulted in them filing for bankruptcy earlier this month, and the CEOs at Blackberry maker, RIM, were removed for not keeping up with competitors just last week.

With statistics released earlier this week showing a proportional increase in the number of students applying to take science, mathematical and technological subjects compared with the arts, (the so-called ‘Brian Cox’ effect), the government must also to do its bit to ensure that a new generation of innovators will have job opportunities in the future.

This could be achieved through R&D tax incentive policies for example but we, the profession, and the authorities can also help by encouraging organizations to have robust quality management systems in place to help stimulate creativity, increase efficiency and productivity and help bring new products to market.

On 1 March the CQI’s Deming Special Interest Group will be holding an event ‘Innovation: Deming’s Secrets’ in central Londonto examine the role of the quality professional in encouraging innovation. To attend or find out more visit Innovation: Deming’s Secrets.

3 February 2012
Simon Feary, CQI CEO

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