Why is it so hard to incent our companies or teams to do anything innovative? Something tangible that makes a difference to the top or bottom line. The vast majority of innovation programmes seem to deliver little more that some nice demos before the programme peters out, with stakeholders often happy to return to their usual duties. The problem is that innovation is neither a product or a process, nor is it a skill; innovation is an artefact of culture, and culture is something that you cannot buy, hire or implement. The reason that most companies fail to innovate – despite significant investment in innovation – is that innovation is a result of culture and their culture actively prevents them from realising anything innovative.
Innovation (whatever that is) has become the Mecca for modern business. In today’s turbulent environment everyone is looking for that new idea or product, that innovation, which will give them an edge. Nowhere is this more obvious than the crowded market places for smartphones and mobile applications, where crowds of companies compete to become the next iPhone, Angry Birds or FarmVille. It’s hard to stand out in a crowded market and you need something unique, something innovative to grab the public’s attention.
In their quest for the next big (innovative) thing, management teams engage innovation consultancies, create innovation functions and programmes, and hire the hot new skills which claim to be the next source of innovation. (Yesterday it was portfolio management; today, Design Thinking, next some are claiming that it’s the skills provided by a liberal arts degree.) The hope it that a tangible investment will result in an intangible outcome, as if innovation is something that can be standardised and transformed into a repeatable process. None of these approaches work reliably.
Innovation, of course, extends to more than casual games and mobile phones. Apple seems to have established a track record for innovation across a number of sectors, Amazon has proved itself to be a lot more than a simple web retailer, while 3M has a long history of bringing interesting products to market (PostIt notes, Scotchguard, Goretex…). We’re also seeing success at the bottom end of the market, where companies such as Kogan are finding new (innovative) was to products to waiting customers at a price point radically lower than traditional bricks and mortar retailers.
At the individual level we find the innovator situated in a broader context. The questing of Pablo Picasso, Jimi Hendrix, Laurie Anderson and Miles Davis was woven into and built apon ideas that they found around them as they tried to make sense of the world. Picasso’s desire to draw a picture showing all sides of the subject once built on Cézanne’s abstract shapes and resulted in cubism. Miles Davis wanted to bring the some of the soul from Sly Stone’s work into the world of Jazz, and created fusion and Bitches’ Brew in the process. New work – innovation – is created by cultural accretion, as the artisan pulls in tools, techniques and ideas from the community around them as they search for the best way to express their aspirations. The innovator’s role is to provide the focus, the drive to realise a new idea, that enables these previously disparit threads together. The context that enables them to do this is the culture, the thick soup of ideas that that’s been simmering for generations.
The common thread running through innovators — both businesses and individuals — is cultural. They approach the problem of innovation obliquely, if they approach it at all. Jon Ives, for example, is on record as claiming that Apple “just makes products that we would love to own ourselves”. Innovation is not something discovered, rather than something intentionally designed. “I’ll play it first, and tell you what it is later”, as Miles Davis said. Rather than invest in innovation functions and processes, or hire innovation gurus, and striving to be innovative, they are focused on solving problems. Tools, techniques and skills (such as Design Thinking) are pulled in as needed to solve a problem, instead of being implemented in the hope that they will instil innovation in whatever we’re doing. Sometimes the focus, the drive to realise a new idea, comes from the top-down, as in Apple’s case. Other times it works bottom-up, as with 3M’s more organic approach to innovation that allows individuals to vote with their feet.
Whether organic or structured, innovation is the result of two things. First is a rich and diverse cultural soup full of the ideas and skills that the innovator can draw on. A culture that values the learning and investigation needed to constantly enrich the soup, and one that extends beyond the wall of the organisation or individual to draw on, and appropriate, ideas an needed.
Second is the imperative, the desire, to follow through on an idea, to realise an idea or find a more elegant solution to a problem. Sometimes is means providing the time and space to develop and idea, but often it means proving constraints to drive the creative process. These constraints might involve time and money, forcing a team to solve a problem faster or more cheaply than a conventional approach would allow. Or the constraints might be written into the requirements, such as Steve Job’s desire to eliminate all but one button to create a more elegant solution.
The failure of many efforts to instil innovation into existing organisations is that they focus on the tools, and forget that innovation is the result of a culture more than it is a process. Without the drive to try something new, and permission to pull in the ideas and tools are most valuable, any investment in innovation will just result in little more than a bright flash followed by silence. Innovation is not something you can buy. It’s the result of the organisational culture you have create, and culture is the hardest thing to change.