Sober, Tipsy, Drunk by scott r hamilton by scott r hamilton.

A liquor store in my hometown used to (and still does) append all of its ads with, “please use our products in moderation.” It was a nice gesture from a social responsibility standpoint, and I was reminded of the tagline recently when pondering innovation.

I’m starting to believe, largely as a result of very-intense and self-involved introspection, that too much innovation can be a bad thing.

“Heresy!” you say (if you are of the entrepreneurial ilk, that would be the right answer). Before you get all bent out of shape, let me explain.

Innovation within an industry or society we generally consider a very good thing. I still believe this to be true. Technological progress, broadly defined, is the cornerstone of economic growth. Industries, cities, societies that innovate thrive. So let’s take innovation in aggregate off the table.

Innovation within an individual organization or person, however, can quickly become counter-productive.

Take gastronomy as an example. Let’s suppose that you make the sage decision to create a new and exciting dinner every single evening. No recipe will be repeated and cookbooks are only allowed if modifications are made to the written word. Now imagine the amount of planning and stress that would be associated with such an endeavor. Not only would your culinary aspirations distract from other important tasks, but you’d lose the “economies of scale” that come with cooking similar meals (or eating leftovers), and you’d also probably never get really good at any given menu item because of your reluctance to iterate and make minor tweaks.

Minor tweaks are not especially sexy or exciting. For that matter, neither are leftovers (except really good stews, which always seem to taste better the second day). However, they are the stuff of disciplined execution on great ideas, which is what big-time innovators can be absolutely terrible at.

If you’re an ideas person like me, you may very well read so much and take in so much information over the course of a day that your world is made up more of possibilities than realities. You sometimes have a difficult time settling down your mind enough to do make detailed to-do lists, set concrete goals, and prioritize your work. If that’s you or your organization, an overdone propensity for innovation may be officially kicking your ass.

As you think about this, here are two points of verification that might prove helpful.

1) Wendy Kopp’s NY Times Corner Office interview. It’s a fabulous interview – read it! Wendy is very clear that focus had to triumph over innovation early in Teach for America’s life in order for the effort to really take off.

2) Remember that the net impact of innovation is positive, but that the process of innovating is NECESSARILY wasteful. Don’t take my word for it. Jeff Bezos once compared the internet boom and bust of the early 2000’s to the Cambrian Explosion that took place 500 million years ago.  The “explosion” of diversity in animal life was a major step forward for the earth, but can’t be viewed as such without also considering the mass extinction that took place fifty million years later that allowed the fittest (and luckiest) species to really thrive.

So, to paraphrase Happy Harry’s, if you want to be successful at a personal or organizational level, “Please Use Your Innovation in Moderation.”

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