The Painful Truth about ‘Agility’ and ‘Innovation’

Ricoh Transform is no longer active. You can keep up to date with the latest thinking from Ricoh Ireland on our new blog, Ricoh Insights.

I’m fascinated with the language of business. Over the last few years I’ve noticed an explosion of two words: “Agility” (the ability to move quickly and easily) and “Innovation” (a new method, idea or product). Here’s two charts which show the use over time.










What we’ve seen is that Innovation started to grow (after a gradual decline) in the 1950s. However, Agility has started to increase in the 1990s and shows constant growth.

These two are intrinsically linked in today’s world. In fact, they are often used in the same breath. They’ve replaced two other words, which coincidentally show a decline in the same period. Innovation replaces Improvement and Agility replaces Strategy.











But what’s the difference between Innovation and Improvement? What’s the difference between Strategy and Agility?


Every organisation, group or society has Continuous Improvement hardwired into the very fabric of what it is. It’s based on a basic human need to improve.

We have always worked in societal groups. Our values of caring for the group, expanding our footprint, improving our environment are what we have built our species upon. We “add” to the existing to improve, we “fix” broken parts and we “optimise” things that don’t work too well.

Continuous Improvement is a steady move forward, building on what we had before.

Now, let’s talk about the exciting new word – Innovation. Innovation is the creation of ideas, new “very different” ways of doing things. Huge leaps in improvement. The tools for Innovation are magical brainstorming approaches. Childlike imagination and creativity of a level not known before.

Any organisation or group who wants to start to bring Innovation into the culture will start by asking “how do we change the brain to think differently and stop thinking in our ‘boxes’?”.

I’d like to challenge this on a fundamental level. Ideas and creative thinking aren’t the solution. They’re only a start.


You only need to have a coffee with a colleague or friend to see innovation in action. Often what an organisation “needs to do” or what it “could do” comes out in these conversations.

Ideas are everywhere. Literally every beautiful brain has imaginative ways of doing things differently. The limit to Innovation has nothing to do with ideas.

We have ideas all over the place. But what’s stopping us becoming innovative?

This comes back to Agility.


Link Innovation (ideas) and Agility (moving quickly and easily) all is fixed, right?

Sadly, it isn’t that easy. The part that stops us is when we have to change, stop what we’re doing or give up something which is important to us.

Unfortunately for us, Innovation is about replacing and step change. It’s not continuous improvement. It needs to break, remove or change something completely. For organisations it can be about large restructures, bringing in new leaders or threatening their own product.

Here lies the true skill to Innovation. It’s not about knowing what to do, having a great idea or product. It’s about breaking or removing the old to make it work. Countless examples are given in the past.


Take the iPhone. Apple saw that the smartphone had the potential to destroy their best selling product, the iPod. They took a bold step with the iPhone to destroy their product early. Innovation which would kill their best product line.

An example of inaction is the flip-side – Nokia. Nokia’s CEO said at one of the latter board meetings before the Microsoft takeover “We knew what we had to do and we did nothing”. Action not taken. And why?

Because of the things that they would have to “switch off” or remove. The declining operating system, the closed app system and all the people whose lives would need to change because of the decision.



We underestimate the difficulty of innovation and agility because we focus on the shiny side – “wouldn’t it be great to move easily and quickly with new ideas, products or methods”.

The hard side of this is to work out what you would have to give up. Who would you upset, who would you lose, what would you destroy or impact?

Can change happen slowly with no consequences driving controlled growth?

Actually, it can. That’s Strategy and Continuous Improvement.

Now there is a new way which the bold are adopting. It means breaking our societal groups, changing our environment, taking risks, failing and learning. All this is the opposite of Continuous Improvement and Strategy.

The next time you are invited to an Innovation Session or talk about Agility, address the difficult side. Brainstorm what we break, remove or change to make room.

The alternative is to be a slow evolving organisation in a fast world.

It’s no longer the bigger fish which eats the smaller fish, it’s the fastest fish which eats the slowest fish” – Klaus Schwab – Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum

 To find out more about how Ricoh have helped organisations become agile and innovative, contact one of our Workplace Services teams here.

Ricoh Transform is no longer active. You can keep up to date with the latest thinking from Ricoh Ireland on our new blog, Ricoh Insights.

No Comments

We want to hear your thoughts

We've moved!

Ricoh Transform is no longer active. You can keep up to date with the latest thinking from Ricoh Ireland on our new blog,
Ricoh Insights.
Visit Ricoh Insights