What is innovation? I don’t know, but then I’m not even sure that it’s an interesting question. The yearning so many companies have to be innovative often seems to prevent them from actually doing anything innovative. They get so caught up in trying to come up with the next innovation — the next big product — that they often fail to do anything innovative at all. It’s more productive to define innovation by understanding what it’s not: doing the same thing as the rest of the crowd, while accepting that there are no silver bullets and that you don’t control all the variables.
So, what is innovation? This seems to be a common question thats comes up whenever a company wants to innovate. After all, the first step in solving a problem is usually to define our terms.
Innovation is a bit like quantum theory’s spooky action at a distance, where stuff we know and understand behaves in a way we don’t expect. It can be easy to spot an innovative outcome (hindsight is a wonderful thing), but it’s hard to predict what will be innovative in the future. Just spend some time browsing Paleo-Future (one of my favourite blogs) to see just how far off the mark we’ve been in the past.
The problem is that as it’s all relative; what’s innovative in one context may (or may not) be innovative in another. You need an environment that brings together a confluence of factors — ideas, skills, the right business and market drivers, the time and space to try something new — before there’s a chance that something innovative might happen.
Unfortunately innovation has been claimed as the engine behind the success of more than a few leading companies, so we all wanted to know what it is (and how to get some). Many books have been written promising to tell you exactly what to do to create innovation, providing you with a twelve step program to a happier and more innovative future. If you just do this, then you too can invent the next iPhone.
Initially we were told that we just needed to find the big idea, a concept which will form the basis of our industry shattering innovation. We hired consultants to run ideation workshops for us, or even outsourced ideation to an innovation consultancy asking them to hunt down the big idea for us. A whole industry has sprung up around the quest for the big idea, with TED (which I have mixed feelings about) being the most obvious example.
As I’ve said before, the quest for the new-new thing is pointless.
The challenge when managing innovation is not in capturing ideas before they develop into market shaping innovations. If we see an innovative idea outside our organization, then we must assume that we’re not the first to see it, and ideas are easily copied. If innovation is a transferable good, then we’d all have the latest version.
Ideas are a dime a dozen, so real challenge is to execute on an idea (i.e. pick one and do something meaningful with it). If you get involved in that ideas arms race, then you will come last as someone will always have the idea before you. As Scott McNealy at Sun likes to say:
Statistically, most of the smart people work for somebody else.
More recently our focus has shifted from ideas to method. Realising that a good idea is not enough, we’ve tried to find a repeatable method with which we can manufacture innovation. This is what business does after all; formalise and systematise a skill, and then deploy it at huge scale to generate a profit. Think Henry Ford and the creation of that first production line.
Design Thinking is the most popular candidate for method of innovation, due largely to the role of Jonathan Ive and design in Apple’s rise from also-ran to market leader. There’s a lot of good stuff in Design Thinking — concepts and practices anyone with an engineering background would recognise. Understand the context that your product or solution must work in. Build up the ideas used in your solution in an incremental and iterative fashion, testing and prototyping as you go. Teamwork and collaboration. And so on…
The fairly obvious problem with this is that Design Thinking does not guarantee an innovative outcome. For every Apple with their iPhone there’s an Apple with a Newton. Or Microsoft with a Kin. Or a host of other carefully designed and crafted products which failed to have any impact in the market. I’ll let the blog-sphere debate the precise reason for each failure, but we can’t escape the fact the best people with a perfect method cannot guarantee us success.
People make bad decisions. You might have followed the method correctly, but perhaps you didn’t quite identify the right target audience. Or the technology might not quite be where you need it to be. Or something a competitor did might render all your blood sweet and tears irrelevant.
Design Thinking (and innovation) is not chess: a game where all variables are known and we have complete information, allowing us to make perfect decisions. We can’t expect a method like Design Thinking to provide an innovative outcome.
Why then do we try and define innovation in terms of the big idea or perfect methodology? I put this down to the quest for a silver bullet: most people hope that there’s a magic cure for their problems which requires little effort to implement, and they dislike the notion that hard work is key.
This is true in many of life’s facets. We prefer diet pills and magic foods over exercise and eating less. If I pay for this, then it will all come good. If we just can just find that innovative idea in our next facilitated ideation workshop. Or hire more designers and implement Design Thinking across our organisation.
Success with innovation, as with so many things, is more a question of hard work than anything else. We forget that the person behind P&G’s Design Thinking efforts, Cindy Tripp, came out of marketing and finance, not design. She chose Design Thinking as the right tool for the problems she needed to solve — Design Thinking didn’t choose her. And she worked hard, pulling in ideas from left, right and centre, to find, test and implement the tools she needed.
So innovation is not the big idea. Nor is it a process like Design Thinking.
For me, innovation is simply:
- working toward a meaningful goal, and
- being empower to use whichever tools will be most beneficial.
If I was to try and define innovation more formally, then I would say that innovation is a combination of two key concepts: obliquity and Jeet Kune Do’s concept of absorbing what is useful.
Obliquity is the simple idea that the best way to achieve a goal in a complex environment is to take an indirect approach. The fastest and most productive path to the top of the mountain might be to take the path that winds its way around the mountain, rather than to try and walk directly up the steepest face.
Apple is a good example of obliquity in action. Both Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives are on record as wanting to make “great products that we want to own ourselves,” rather than plotting to build the biggest and most innovative company on the planet. Rather than try and game the financial metrics, they are focusing on making great products.
Bruce Lee came up with the idea of “absorbing what is useful” when he created Jeet Kune Do. He promoted the idea that students should learn a range of methods and doctrines, experiment to learn what works (and what doesn’t work) for them, “absorb what is useful” while discarding the remainder. The critical point of this principle is that the choice of what to keep is based on personal experimentation. It is not based on how a technique may look or feel, or how precisely the artist can mimic tradition. In the final analysis, if the technique is not beneficial, it is discarded. Lee believed that only the individual could come to understand what worked; based on critical self analysis, and by, “honestly expressing oneself, without lying to oneself.”
Cindy Tripp at P&G is a good example of someone absorbing what is useful. Her career has her investigating different topics and domains, more a sun shaped individual than a t-shaped one. Starting from a core passion, she accreted a collection of disciplines, tools and techniques which are beneficial. Design Thinking is one of these techniques (which she uses as a reframing tool).
I suppose you could say that I’ve defined innovation by identifying what it’s not: innovation is the courage to find a different way up the hill, while accepting that there are no silver bullets and that you don’t control all the variables.
Updated: Tweeked the wording in the (lucky) 13th paragraph in line with Bill Buxton’s comment.
For every Apple with their iPhone there’s an Apple with a Newton. Or Microsoft with a Kin.