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Rethinking Innovation

If you’re like me, you may find the word "Innovation" daunting. It’s used these days in every context imaginable, including the totally ridiculous. When it shows up in conversation, or in some expectation a client may have, common sense often goes out the window. In its place is an all-consuming obsession to devise some earth-shaking, new service or product. What if a perfect solution to whatever problem being addressed is some teeny tiny, incremental shift in thinking, a new way of applying something that already exists, or, horrors, simply waiting and doing nothing where we’re typically inclined to act.

I attended a workshop presented by Larry Keeley of the Chicago-based Doblin Group who offered an interesting perspective on the concept of innovation. In paraphrasing from his article, The Greatest Innovations of All Time, he suggests that the goal should be to create platforms that can cut across industries. These platforms can then facilitate the integration of ordinary ideas into a new whole that goes beyond "mere inventions."

Okay, let’s get to work. Although you were quickly reading this post, fingers poised to click on to the next exciting one, I invite you to share a term or phrase that you think could substitute for "Innovation." This might go a long way in curtailing the paralysis of creative thinking and fear induced when we’re tasked to INNOVATE. Better yet, imagine the fear you’ve felt when your company establishes a new division you’ll head up called the Widget Makers Innovation Team. Pretty scary. Are there some less frightening terms that would help us get closer to Keeley’s suggestion and unleash our natural inclination to free-flow? Before asking this of you, it’s only fair that I share some I’ve come up with, so here goes:

  • Pragmatic ingenuity
  • Real Focus
  • Simple Brilliance
  • Tiny Change
  • Creative Integration

You may consider some of these lame, but work with me here. One way to see which one of these could work, is to play with the title of this post - Rethinking Innovation – and substitute your term or phrase for "Innovation." For example, the new title would be Rethinking Pragmatic Ingenuity, Rethinking Simple Answers, Rethinking Tiny Change and so on. You get the hang of it.

Let’s take Pragmatic Ingenuity, specifically. I was in a village in Nigeria several years ago, and saw one of many examples of smart, integrated thinking. This motorcycle repair man you see here (photo – diverseimages) was doing something pretty interesting. In the village, there are no sidewalks. Villagers carrying pails of water, food, children on their backs, and so on, need enough time to scurry out of the way when a vehicle is fast approaching. The motorbikes, some can afford, have horns that are no match for blasting car horns. So motorbike owners, especially those that use them to run gravity-defying taxi services, have their motorbikes outfitted with reclaimed car horns. This way, the horns are as loud as cars — a feature, which they say protects them from being hit by cars, while limiting the number of pedestrians they hurt. Mind you, car owners find their solution pretty annoying, as they often maneuver their cars out of the way, assuming another car is coming around a blind bend on a swerving road, only to find that they made way for a scrawny little moped.

Would this qualify as innovation or Innovation? Is it not real-time, pragmatic ingenuity? No over-thinking or pressure to be grandiose — just a smart integration of existing ordinary elements.

You get the point. Sometimes we’re just too "over-educated" or "over-experienced" for our own good, or simply too "tensed-up" by our wrongly-directed intent to invent something new. I wonder what other solutions to local and global challenges would evolve if we simply stop thinking that innovation is something that happens in some remote conference room or a fancy corporate retreat. Looking at how the indigent solve survival problems just might go a long way in relaxing our minds to free flow…

Anaezi Modu, Founder
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