About the Practice of Innovation

This is the comment I made on the Nussbaum on Design blog the other day for those that prefer to read it here. Its not the first time I’ve tried to define the Practice Of Innovation, it’s part of an earlier entry.

James Todhunter over at Innovating To Win also picked up the comments, emphasizing that The Practice of Innovation, rather than simply innovation is a core competency that should be seen as a C-level issue. Based on my experience at Jump Associate, I would say that companies are certainly taking notice at that level. The new VP’s of innovation that are emerging are not on-off imagination product wizards, but intertwined with corporate strategy on a very deep level.

clown%20one.jpgAh yes, the “Clown Theory” of innovation. I prefer to call it the manure theory, toss a bunch of “wacky” people into a room and hope something tasty grows. Your post points to a couple of issues, that people are still looking for that magic bullet to solve problems now, and the other, more problematic phrase, that people don’t “get it”. People still tend to think of innovation as a one-off product, they see the iPod as spawning all these other goods and services. The innovation was in the how’ and the whys of reframing what the model for digital entertainment looks like. The iPod is an extremely important cog in the machine, but it is not the primary innovation. This is why I prefer to think of the Practice of Innovation, rather than just Innovation as a verb.

Companies that are on the cutting edge of the Practice Of Innovation are ones that have learned that a groundbreaking product or service (the innovation) is the happy outcome of a lot of hard work. In my view, this Practice of Innovation can be defined as:
The art and science of unraveling knotty problems in a way that reveals underlying needs then reframes them in a unique and robust way that guides and inspires long-term strategic development.

People are slowly coming around to the fact the we can craft a discipline around innovation, and those that are doing it are combining design, social science and business brains in clever ways. Rather than tossing all the clever company rebels into a project, it is about finding and cultivating people that have a passion for all three areas, and developing rigorous methods to combine them to gain insight for competitive advantage. Somewhat counter intuitively, the broader the area you are working in, the more disciplined your team needs to be.
I also don’t think it is a question of who get it or does not get it. That is actually a phrase that I am trying to encourage people to stop using. In my experience, when someone says that another person doesn’t get it, particularly when talking about innovation in the abstract, it is often a gloss for: a) I really couldn’t explain my position very well, and they kept asking me questions I could not answer clearly, or b) It’s a neat and tidy way of separating the “smart” people from the “dumb” people. Its just too easy, once you say someone doesn’t get it, you let yourself off the hook for being better at articulating the why.

Aside from the time tellers that have the, sometimes well deserved, belief they already have a good handle on the pulse of what’s coming next, there are other reasons why people appear like they sometimes “don’t get it” so to speak. Sometimes it’s because they just don’t care. When someone tries to explain to me their magical experience at Burning Man and why I should go, it’s a bit of a waste. I get it, I simply don’t care and trying to convince me I should care is taking valuable time away from playing Zelda on my Wii. Another reason people appear as if they don’t get innovation is fear. They understand quite clearly that to make whatever it is being suggested means big changes. Big changes are scary and risky, especially if your business serves the latter side of the adoption curve.

Then there is the worst reason: they have been burned in the past. An ill-conceived or executed “innovation project” was approved and failed on their watch. Lots of cash went with little value in return. But I am hopeful that enough organizations out there are making the turn to the “Practice Of Innovation” that the risk/reward ratio will come into a better balance.