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The trouble with innovation

Innovation is important. Necessary. Critical to success.  We’ve all heard it.  Innovative or die. We here it all the time.  There is a lot of new talk of late about how innovation can fix the economy, save education, solve the healthcare crisis, and more. Very smart people argue that innovation is the core of a successful company.  Books and cover stories about innovation are making the rounds like never before.

Innovation is important. Necessary. Critical to success.  We’ve all heard it.  Innovative or die. We here it all the time. 

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There is a lot of new talk of late about how innovation can fix the economy, save education, solve the healthcare crisis, and more. Very smart people argue that innovation is the core of a successful company.  Books and cover stories about innovation are making the rounds like never before.

But there is a problem with innovation.  Its hard.  I mean really hard.  To do something innovative once, let alone innovating, you have to be smart, and engaged, and connected, and have enough free time to really focus on making changes and having an impact.  Do you have that kind of freedom in your day?

Innovation doesn’t just happen.  You don’t see something on your walk to work in the morning and then translate that into a radical change in your business model, or a new future for journalism before lunch.  In many cases, the true innovation that occurs happens over years or even generations — you can’t throw a new org chart together or a creative new tagline and have the work you do change.

I know innovation is important. I push my clients, and everyone project I am involved with, to think differently and change the way they are operating. I think our society is changing, rapidly, and innovation is a matter of survival today. 

But I also recognize that not everybody is innovative, or can innovate.  Some aren’t in the right role, so their ideas aren’t heard (not their fault, but still an impediment to change). Some don’t have the time to focus.  Some don’t have the access to information or the tools to help communicate or demonstrate the innovations that are needed.  None of those are intended as judgments on the intelligence or commitment of the people in the world today.  Rather, I am just trying to note that all the talk about innovation doesn’t necessarily jive with the reality of how we operate.

If innovation isn’t for everyone, but the future of our society depends – at least in part – on true innovation occuring, what options are we left with?  Let me suggest two quickly:

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1) We need to redefine innovation.  Rather than glorifying the big idea or the creative new presentation, we should look at innovation as more of an incremental shift in behavior, attitude, and action.  You don’t have to radically change a whole community or measure a huge impact to claim innovation.  One tiny shift in how someone goes about their day that you helped to drive could be a sign of innovation. One change in the way an organization operates is a sign of innovation.  One example of a positive outcome, even if its just a one-time example, is a sign that innovation is possible. Add those up, you’ll have big changes, massive shifts. Look past the little things and you’ll find yourself falling short of your goals.

2) We need to focus our efforts in more places.  Innovation, it seems, is always reserved for something huge – a whole industry, a way of life. We’ve seen innovations in green technology, in hos hospitals manage disease, in the way people ensure there is enough clean water around the world for the people who need it. What about the innovations that happened at home, around your office, in your community. That way of keeping your to-do list, so you can manage more items or free of some brain space to help a colleague… that’s an innovation that has huge potential for impact.  A word change on a form that you have to fill out to request a stop sign from your local city government… that’s an innovation that might save lives or begin a transformation of an entire neighborhood.  Point is, we all have the potential to be innovative, if we look at the every-day, ordinary, mundane things in our lives and look at how they might be improved or changed.

Innovation is important. Necessary. Critical to success.  We have all heard it, and we will continue to hear about it.  I hope that the way we think about innovation, however, will change.

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