The Challenge of Innovation

By Thane on Mon 17 November 2014

Many a 2x2 matrix has been developed around what we tend to call "innovation", but are these existing ways of thinking about innovation actually useful to us? Are they practical enough to help guide our daily thinking and activities to actually facilitate real-life innovation? Of course, the question of "why" needs to be asked at the outset here to make sure we actually want to delve deeper into this question. Why do we want to innovate in the first place? Hype aside, it does seem as though, practically, innovations often tend to improve our quality of life as a society, which is most certainly something desirable. I will leave it at that for now.

To kick off, let me summarise my opinion about innovation: we will never be able to predict or control innovation; all we can do is adjust our attitude towards it and be open to facilitating it. This, of course, does not bode well for those whose goal is to innovate. The rest of this article focuses on why I say this, and unpacks a bit of thinking around "re-humanising" our approach to innovation (as opposed to trying to make "innovation factories" out of our companies).

What is "Innovation"?

At first glance this question would seem a little redundant, because we all have an intuitive sense that lights up when we recognise something that we consider to be "innovative", but when trying to articulate what innovation actually is, one runs into a bit of trouble. Especially troublesome is trying to figure out how to make innovation practical, and this is even more troublesome within the context of an organisation where there many different views on what an "innovative" idea looks like.

The current Wikipedia article (as of the date of this writing) cites the dictionary and a few business-oriented journal articles:

Innovation is a new idea, device or process [1]. Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulated needs, or existing market needs [2].

I would be hesitant to classify just any new idea, device or process as being "innovative" - that just does not seem to do the intuitive idea, of what I understand innovation to be, justice. The definition from the journal article seems to get closer to my intuitive understanding of the concept, but it does seem a little too narrow to be practical in different contexts.

Questions

I have found many times that, whenever a concept is too fuzzy to be practically articulated, asking a few directed questions can help in clarifying that understanding. Here are a few that, I feel at least, have helped me to understand innovation a little better:

  1. Is innovation limited to technology alone?
    Although it seems as though most innovation takes place in the technology sphere, that is probably due to the media hype around it and the fact that we consume so much of our news nowadays via high technology. Take a look at the Management Innovation eXchange for an example of a group focusing on innovation in all spheres of management, not just technology. I have also, personally, heard the term "innovative" being applied to artistic and musical compositions.

  2. Are "new" things automatically also "innovative"?
    As mentioned earlier, the word "innovative" seems to have more connotations to it than just "new" - otherwise why not just use the word "new"? There seems to be, as per the definition from the journal article on the "Innovation" Wikipedia page, a hint of "better" in our idea of what innovation is too.

  3. To whom is innovation "new"? That is, is a particular innovation always unique globally?
    Imagine yourself in a culture that sits out in a remote part of the world that has yet to be touched by modern technology, where they have only just discovered writing using berry paste to draw pictograms on the walls of caves. If they were suddenly exposed to pencil and paper, and methods to make their own pencils and paper, would that not be "innovative" to them? Would that not perhaps transform their society in ways unfathomable to even them? From this extreme example, we could speculate that innovation is always relative. It is, of course, possible for an idea to be globally unique, but it seems to very often be the case that innovation is only locally unique (think of how many times you or someone you know has come up with an idea, that they thought was new, that has already been patented by someone else). It is rather hard to find innovative ideas that are globally unique, especially in today's hyper-connected society.
  4. Are innovative ideas limited to being generated by top management?
    This seems to be a bit of a no-brainer (well, to me at least) - that creative and innovative ideas can come from absolutely anywhere. It is, however, important to acknowledge the role of top management buy-in in getting new ideas adopted in a business. Ideas propagate along the lines carved out by power and influence, and so regardless of where the idea comes from, top management usually has to buy in for it to become a reality.

  5. Do innovative ideas usually come to a single genius/visionary?
    Looking at Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs, for example, one might be tempted to think that innovation is the product of the efforts of a single genius/visionary. A single person could, perhaps, have an innovative idea, but taking into account the fact that we are socialised into having minds in the first place, one cannot discount the role that the culture(s) in which an individual arises has a heavy influence on their ideas. Not only this, but, thinking of even my own personal experience in developing innovative products and technical systems, one innovative vision usually requires a number of technical (and possibly even managerial) innovations to come to life. One also usually depends on a number of other people to make this idea a reality, and on a market to actually buy the product or service.

Practically Defining "Innovation"

Using some of the questions and thinking above, as well as some of my background understanding of complexity theory, evolution and theories around "quality", I would personally synthesise this understanding into a very simple and practical definition of innovation. It would make sense to have a simple, practical definition accessible to anyone at any level, since innovative ideas can come from pretty much anywhere.

Innovation is the movement towards both new and better.

I feel that this definition does satisfy my intuitive understanding of what the process of "innovation" looks like, but this is still quite problematic in a few very practical ways.

The Trouble with "New"

If the "new" were predictable, it would not be "new", would it? This may seem obvious, but this has deep practical implications for wanting to try to force or control the development of "new" ideas, products or services.

A rather mystical (and sometimes terrifyingly so) question then comes up: if we cannot control or predict the "new", where does the "new" come from? What is that little spark of "madness" that seizes us when a new idea bubbles up from the depths of our subconscious mind? I would personally rather not even speculate on this sort of question, because we will probably never know the answer to this (I have reasons as to why I believe this, but would have to digress wildly to discuss this).

Since the "new" seems to be unpredictable, and even mystical when thinking a bit deeper about it, is it at least possible to set up conditions to allow for "new" things to come about? If so, what are those conditions? It usually seems to take a certain amount of inner stillness and attention to facilitate this sort of newness (I say usually because of how unpredictable it is: sometimes it comes, sometimes it does not). It seems to be an integral part of one's own inner spiritual journey, and so, for me at least, makes a good case for assisting others in their personal development if they would want that. Such people seem to be able to be more creative and facilitate more "newness".

This perspective, of course, blurs the line between "personal" and "work" activities significantly, especially if your job, like mine, involves innovation. But I personally see those distinctions as being rather artificial. For me, my work is just as much of an expression of an aspect of who I am as my art.

The Trouble with "Better"

Just because something is new does not mean it is actually useful or better in any way. This is probably why, in most definitions of innovation, there is a strong focus on having these new solutions solve real-world problems. This is a way of "grounding" us to make sure that our blue sky thinking is not too detached from reality and so that we avoid wasting precious resources on fruitless and frivolous pursuits.

I would rather put "needs" under the broader banner of "better", just for practical purposes, because I have personally been part of many business conversations where people sit in their ivory towers trying to brainstorm the needs of others and developing products and services that did not add any value to society at the end of the day. A focus on better seems a little closer to one's own spectacles, because of its often intuitive nature.

How much control do we have over "better"?

The question is, do we determine better, or does better determine us?

Where does our intuitive sense of "better" come from? If I think and/or feel as though a particular course of action is the "best" course of action at the time, am I the one who has actually originated that best course of action, or have I merely detected it (or, rather, tried to detect it) from my context and available options?

In my mind at least, if we could originate or dictate "best" courses of action, we would easily be able to come up with pretty much any product or service we wanted and it would be a roaring hit with the market (assuming that the market is free to choose their own "best" course of action). This, however, is unfortunately not the case. There seem to be avenues, or courses of action, that are more conducive to "success" in life.

Of course, we can creatively come up with potential options, but which one(s) will actually lead to "success" is not usually up to a single person. Sometimes we can even come up with and choose options that we think, before the time, might be good for us, but they end up not actually fulfilling the initial desire that spurred the choosing in the first place.

Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, develops a "metaphysics of Quality" where he makes the claim that Quality (Better/Best), or at least that which we intuitively understand to be quality, is actually the driving force behind evolution. Those books are most certainly worth the read if you would like to gain an appreciation for the deep questions surrounding the idea of "quality".

Iterating towards "better"

If we cannot control "better", are there perhaps at least ways of improving our ability to detect it?

From my own experience in my creative pursuits (in composing songs on guitar and developing artistic concepts for my sketching and painting), good works of art do not seem to come by act of will alone. They seem to come "through" you almost, from somewhere deeper within (this is either something mystical or something very complex, or perhaps both, related to the workings of the deep subconscious or even unconscious mind). It also often seems to be a rather iterative process: a conversation between the artist and the canvas. One splashes some paint on the canvas just to get things going. It does not seem to fit so well with one's inner feeling, so one adds a little more here and there, painting over some of our previous work, adding to it, subtracting from it, until one is eventually satisfied with this particular expression. These intuitive feelings are an important guide in the creative process, and are most certainly not something that can be systematised or automated. How could one possibly automate intuition?

This same iterative process seems to work quite well in the realm of high tech innovation, or even with new ideas in general. This is especially so with today's "fail fast" and "fail forward" models of technological management. We develop a minimal viable product, and put it out there to get market feedback. If we decide to continue with the product or service, we take the most valuable recommendations and feedback and synthesise them into the next version of the product or service, and so on.

The Trouble with Innovation

And so, since both "new" and "better" are rather troublesome beasts that seem to evade captivity rather easily, it would seem that, as we would probably expect from our practical experience in business, innovation in general is also a rather elusive creature.

How then does one approach innovation? Is there perhaps a way to approach it, practically, to increase the likelihood of simultaneous newness and betterment?

Opening up to Innovation

From my reasoning above, and also from my own practical experience, there are a few focal points that tend to facilitate a greater degree of innovation.

  1. Admit to yourself that you are part of the process. As much as you would like to be able to stand apart from your situation, organisation, etc., it is fundamentally impossible for you to be an impartial observer. Every conversation you have with another individual (or sometimes not having conversations with particular individuals) changes who you and they are in ways that are sometimes subtle, and other times not. We are all in this process called "life" together, whether we like it or not, and each of us is changing and evolving on a daily basis. Also, your views on what is "new" and "better" are important, just as the views of others are also important and to be taken into account when making decisions.
  2. Consume large amounts of information, and talk to other people about the things that stand out to you. This allows you to get a gauge on what is genuinely "new" as opposed to what has already been implemented, and new ideas often seem to stimulate other new ideas. It would seem that good artists have good libraries, good musicians know a large number of different types of riffs, and these different constructs allow them to paint a wider variety of expression and allow them to combine different artistic/musical ideas in new and interesting ways. A similar dynamic exists when it comes to business ideas. Talking to people about these ideas also seems to help with sifting out what information is important to your culture and your context.
  3. Think long and hard about what it is that you genuinely want, deep down, as opposed to what you think you want (sometimes they can be the same thing, sometimes not). The expression "know thyself" comes to mind here. This comes down to honing your own personal sense of what is truly "better".
  4. Talk to others about what they genuinely want (again, as opposed to what they think they want: the customer does not always know what they really want). Good companies seem to be really good at listening to what their customers genuinely want. This could even open you up to options in life that you haven't considered before (this would be the ideal result of this sort of talk).
  5. Budget time and money for discovery and experimentation. As mentioned earlier, one of the ways in which innovation seems more likely to happen is when one approaches it in an iterative fashion. This point works hand-in-hand with the understanding point made earlier, but also includes an aspect of action, because experimentation is an active pursuit. Of course, just practically, one has to have enough time and money to be able to pursue such experimentation. The ideal is to go for low-cost, potentially high-reward experiments (see Nassim Taleb's Anti-Fragile for more on "good options").
  6. Practise delaying judgement. One thing we know about brainstorming (which is a phase in traditional creativity exercises) is that premature judgement of ideas can potentially kill really good ones before they even have a chance to germinate. The act of delaying judgement requires a certain amount of discomfort, because we tend to like to have things resolved and neatly packaged in our minds. Unfortunately, "new" and "better" often do not fit so neatly into our existing mental categories or tags. We need to get used to the idea that we will often be uncomfortable when we are trying to facilitate innovation.

Conclusion

From my reasoning and personal experience, it would seem as though innovation is most likely impossible to control. It would seem as though our intuitive understanding of what innovation is is based on the rather problematic (when trying to control them), yet necessary, phenomena of "new" and "better", simultaneously. There are ways in which we can change our attitude towards these phenomena, but it would seem as though taking the perspective that they are beyond our control, accepting that, and being open to them manifesting through us, is a more useful approach to dealing with them. These ways partially involve coming to a deeper understanding of oneself and others, and so, in my opinion at least, facilitate a "re-humanising" of business when applied in a business context.

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