I have a dilemma. I can’t quite determine what innovation is. That’s combined with the struggle to understand when it occurs. I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions:
Is innovation actually different from progress or change?
Isn’t it often just evolution being applied outside of a biological and genetic setting?
Does innovation occur the first time, and only the first time, something is practiced? Or can innovation occur repeatedly?
Is it innovation when it happens in a local context – i.e. the first time I try a technology – or just in the global sense?
Is adoption an actual part of the innovation process at all?
Innovation seems to be one of those words that’s lost its sense of meaning because its being applied to everything! I chose a maroon shirt to wear – INNOVATION! I started using a bit of software – INNOVATION!
Quantifying innovation seems like a interesting field.
…but to be honest that all seems wrong – it’s all too planned, managed and organised. I’m not necessarily saying this is all wrong – but it’s a daguerreotype – where we intellectualise the image of innovation that’s been created rather than the reality it came from – its true self.
When I sit down to imagine innovation I get real sense of chaos, of mischief, of mistakes & errors, of bending and breaking the rules – not of a neat little box, a graph and a clear category. It’s not something we can just prepackage and deploy – otherwise everyone would be doing it and the reality is that very few actually are really innovating at all. It’s just appeared in the lexicon of organisations with little sense if what it actually means. The neat little version we can categorise isn’t really the actual process of innovation – but what it looks like after the fact, the aftermath, just the concept itself divorced from the reality of getting there.
I’d like blame (and honour) David Jones for making me question what innovation really is:
According to historian Benoit Godin, for more than 2,500 years, the innovator was “a heretic, a revolutionary, a cheater.” Innovators brought little but trouble: They challenged the status quo and undermined the stability of the state. As late as the 1940s, innovation was seen as a form of deviant behavior — like crime or delinquency.
This quote stirred something in me and forced me to really question what innovation actually is. I don’t think it is simply change, progress or growth as they are all measurable and easy to define. Neither is innovation the implementation of something that already exists.
To me innovation is more chaotic and organic with the whole process being messy, contradictory and confusing. Innovation is about the process of thinking, doing, reflecting, tinkering and deconstructing the very foundations we base our ideas. Despite all of this chaos the end result, what is eventually created and formed, is often unrivalled in its clarity and vision. Innovation is a blend of both the destructive and creative.
Innovation is about saying goodbye to things as much as generating and creating new things. This is the hardest part of innovation – making space for the new. – Geoff Mulgan
After all that I’ve come to this: Change comes in cycles & Innovation in waves.
Cycle of Change
People, organisations and companies are all moving forward, changing and adapting to new environments – but is that actual innovation? It seems more evolutionary – a cycle of frequent and managed adaptions to broader and significant environmental and cultural developments.
Change isn’t something that stops because entropy is fundamental to the universe and as such we just have to come to terms with it as a constant. However, because it is a constant we can develop equations on how to deal with it. Change is really a cycle, as history repeats itself it just changes the actors and sometimes the outcomes.
Wave of Innovation
Innovation however is less predictable, seemingly random and quite rare. Over time it builds but at some point it always dissipates – whether that be through wide scale adoption or abject failure. Sometimes the waves can build up to a point that they destroy products, processes, positions and paradigms with them. Other times they are just a ripple we barely feel before it fades into nothing.
Many organisations that wish to be seen as innovative decide to just ride the wave but that isn’t a particularly safe or predictable path. No, if you’re looking for something safe you can’t really innovate, or even ride the wave, you have to wait for the change to be upon you.
If however you want to be an actual Innovator you have to make the waves. There is no choice in that. This is why innovation is truly rare and uncommon. You have to either make a big splash or be willing to put in the resources, time and support to build up momentum, acutely aware that it will all end and dissipate at some point. Sometimes it changes into something else or feeds back into the ocean to form another wave, but it always ends.
Change however is forever.
This way of thinking has made innovation seem more tangible and less of a label to me. It also prompts further thoughts about how change and innovation relate and interact. I was reminded of an image I created a couple of years ago when I first was putting some ideas about innovation – change creates innovation and innovation creates change.
It’s a cycle of two unique and separate processes that interact and feed into each other. Which means there is a space between the two that needs further investigation – how innovation becomes change and change becomes innovation.
Innovation in the Organisation
It’s also made me understand more clearly what it is that organisations want when they say they want innovation. While they might want the experimental aspects of innovation to be part of their process, what they really want is to be better at change. They want to be more active and agile in their response to change. They want to be able to be part if that process earlier, to feed into it, rather than wait till their back is against the wall and they have to do it. But that’s just not innovation. That’s not being innovative but it is something more manageable and achievable because change is a defined process. It might require fundamental repositioning in terms of markets, staff, process and organisations structure (I never alluded to it being easy did I?), but it is achievable. It’s really not about innovation, it’s about change.
This is a fairly recent way of thinking for me – as in the last three days – I want to mull through it some more. The more I think through it and unpack the real examples of innovation (the hothouse that is Apple for example) the more I think I’m onto something.