Finding the Value in Iteration, Not Innovation

by Jeffrey Whitford
Nov 2, 2017 3:30 PM ET
Photo courtesy of Money Inc.

Originally appeared on Money Inc.

I have a vitriolic reaction to the word innovation. I’ve actively tried to scrub it from my vocabulary. I am also that painful colleague who raises an eyebrow when I hear the word—or even worse—forces the issue in discussion to really understand if we’re using the word correctly. There’s this expectation in the corporate world that innovation is the Holy Grail—the one and only path—but when you look at what actually happens in corporate land, innovation is scarce to be found. What’s even more disappointing is a sense of malaise when people hear the word volleyed about. I also don’t think it’s a situation of leaders prodding and pushing on innovation knowing that it’s not happening, but instead hoping that if they say it enough, it may finally take hold. 

I go back to my roots from the Journalism School at Mizzou and think about the principle of people and companies within industries being able to own a word. Some companies may own innovation in the minds of their customers. Others may own quality—and, unfortunately for those who own quality, someone might as well just give them a compliment for wearing a lumpy potato sack, because it’s neither seen as sexy nor desirable in most circles. 

I question why we seem to look the other way at iterative progress that can actually be more powerful and productive than the potentially once-in-a-blue-moon innovation. I’m not suggesting that we just turn from innovation. My interest instead lies in what happens when you deploy people on something that is less scary, far more approachable and delivers immediate impact. And, what if that collective impact is transformational?

I’ve recently become a vocal advocate for iteration. What I’ve realized is that I’ve unconsciously applied an iteration principle during my career and, now upon reflection, have found that by advocating for aggressive iteration, there’s an opportunity we’ve been missing to deliver results quickly. I’m willing to place a big, bold bet that with iteration, we can make progress faster than waiting for or trying to force innovation. This is also where you can apply a principle of allocating work, say 80 percent on the daily tasks and 20 on innovation. Though we tend to look at that with a lens that’s more 90/10 or even 95/5—except those everyday tasks then are much more important and less mundane. We leave space for innovation, but we’re not beholden to it being the end all be all. 

Some may say that it’s great you have that perspective, but how do you back that up—or how can you back that up? I think we’ve got plenty of proof points that demonstrate how we’re making iteration work in our favor, but let’s explore one.

Let’s start with the DOZN™ tool—MilliporeSigma’s quantitative green chemistry analysis tool. Being able to quantify the green improvements we’re making was essentially a pipe dream of mine years ago. That pipe dream ultimately led to the creation of an industry-first approach to green chemistry quantification. Our perception on that tool has always been that we had to start somewhere and, once we found that starting place, we’d use the experience and the conversation that was created to move us to our next steps. I’m happy to report that is now exactly what we’re doing. 

The DOZN™ tool started as a way to analyze the environmental footprint improvements we made through the utilization of green chemistry in our production process so that we could more easily communicate—in a quantitative fashion—the improvements that our teams had made (usually iterative improvements with substantial impact). The DOZN™ 2.0 tool is multifaceted. We’re in the midst of making the tool publicly available to our customers through our industry-leading website,, which will give our customers the ability to utilize the tool for themselves. The exciting part is that this is just the start. The much bigger development is that we’re also expanding the capability of the tool from a product comparison tool to something that is much more important to our customers: process calculation.

The takeaway here for me is that while it may have been possible for us to leapfrog the first stage of development and make it to the process calculation, we would have clearly had a tougher time. The iterative approach was a blessing in disguise—giving us the testing ground to validate and pressure test our idea with a clear and manageable framework. We built confidence and then we capitalized on that confidence to grow our vision of what the DOZN™ tool could be for us—and what it could be for our stakeholders bringing them along with us through the journey to create an even better tool. The breakdown of these projects creates a breeding ground for success—helping people grow confidence, capability and ultimately results.

Jeffrey Whitford is head of global corporate responsibility for MilliporeSigma.