Do we really understand innovation?


I was fortunate to attend the Oracle Business Analytics 2016 Conference recently, the conference raised my expectations with truly exceptional thought leadership, great content, case studies and the show stopper for me was a live demonstration to the delegates on a new business analytics product called ‘Day by Day’.

The product enables you to speak to your mobile phone device after reviewing a P&L and visuals, ask the spread sheet any question on and around the information received and the app will provide you with a) the answers in roughly 10 seconds and b) the new spread sheet and visuals now incorporated with your question.

My eyes were completely wide open, this was the most amazing set of tools I have ever seen or experienced, so I thought to myself is innovation the ability to have fast, interactive, visual insights into business performance that show the difference between success and failure, or is innovation so much more, do we really understand innovation?

Albert Einstein, a man whose name is practically synonymous with genius, is one of history’s greatest thinkers. As a physicist and mathematician, Einstein wasn’t an inventor in the vein of Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, but his theories of relativity led to new ways of looking at time, space, matter, energy and gravity. His work led to important advances such as the control of atomic energy, space exploration, and applications of light.

Design thinking represents a serious challenge to the status quo at more traditional companies, especially those where engineering or marketing may hold sway. Patrick Whitney, dean of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), who sends many of his graduates off to Ideo, a design and innovation consulting firm, says he sees this resistance all the time.
“A lot of my students have MBAs and engineering degrees. They’re taught to identify the opportunity set, deal with whatever numbers you can find to give you certainty, then optimise.”

But some problems need to be restated before a big, new idea can be hatched. It often helps to take the problem and break it apart, before putting it back together in a whole new way — the synthesis or abstraction step. That’s where the creative leap often occurs and what Ideo’s process is designed to unearth.

Scott Berkun, author of the book “The Myths of Innovation”, recently suggested that we use the word innovation too often in a vague way and we have diverse intended meanings. I can not argue with him. It’s used carelessly to suggest a number of different things and has lately been a popular buzz word for nearly anything. Innovation should be something that is fresh creative, design lead that makes a difference to the world and one where we can see the value.

Do we really understand innovation?

Berkun’s well written argument published here at Harvard Business Review suggests that we use the word innovation to simply mean something “great”. He cites things like the Apple iPhone, Google search engine, and Pixar’s films as examples of output we all herald as innovative. He also suggests that people classed as innovative are not thinking about innovation or trying to be innovative, rather, they are just focused on great output and innovation is the perception of successful output by the masses. Berkun has good reasoning here–because something perceived as “Great” by common consent could mean that we all value something that has impacted us. This is one key ingredient to the definition of innovation.

Consumers have become increasingly habituated to look for and want what’s new, best, fastest, more convenient, or more fashionable, and to tire of products much more quickly. This mind set applies to virtually every category: even previously slow moving ones such as dishes, toothpaste, or paper towels. For firms to sit still and not successfully innovate is often to wither away, since competitors and start-ups have leapfrogged industry incumbents. Complacency is not an option. In this increasingly educated and talented world, with lower labour and production costs abroad, successful start-ups can pop up anywhere.

If innovation is also associated with our human feelings, it’s no wonder it is used so differently and widely. Innovation should be defined, is innovation creating new markets by discovering new categories of customers?
Is innovation harnessing new technologies but also by developing new business models and exploiting old technologies in new ways?

My final thought is why does a common definition of innovation matter?
Because if you do not share a common description of what innovation is and how it is created, you have little chance of achieving it with the other members of your organisation.

One of Einstein’s greatest quotes:

‘To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.’

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