How does innovation flourish?
“Innovation” may be a buzzword today, but for a long time, the concept was decidedly unpopular. Believe it or not, the mere notion of doing things differently once prompted profound suspicion. The accepted wisdom was that you should do pretty much precisely what your parents had done.
Fortunately, for the past hundred years and more this spectacularly unambitious mindset has been much less in evidence. Nowadays innovation is all around us, its vital role in economic development almost universally recognised. Yet there remains worrying evidence that it’s still somewhat misunderstood.
In 2013, for instance, 93 percent of executives quizzed in an Accenture survey of organisations with revenues of more than $100m believed the ability to innovate critical to long-term success. But only 18 percent felt their innovation strategy delivered a competitive advantage.
In light of this sort of confusion, how should we define “innovation”? Maybe the neatest answer is to treat it as the successful exploitation of new ideas. It’s the process that carries ideas into actions – regardless of whether those ideas take the form of services, technologies, businesses, means of organising or even ways of thinking – with a view to not only doing things differently but, crucially, bringing value.
Beware novelty for its own sake
Research carried out as part of the executive education programme at Nottingham University Business School has revealed an uncanny consensus about the principal barriers to innovation. Those that routinely feature high on the list include non-engagement, short-termism, inflexibility, risk-aversion, micromanagement, lack of time, lack of freedom, lack of budget and initiative overload.
It’s the last of these that may well be the most crushingly familiar of all. It’s certainly the most ridiculously self-defeating. The stories of initiatives being superseded before they’ve even been implemented are legion.
Some suggest this type of aimlessness is inevitable in a world of ceaseless change, but this is to misunderstand the very nature of innovation. Novelty for its own sake is no better than pretending to champion revolution while in reality furthering the cause of addled inertia.
Such an approach usually results in an unhealthy tendency towards caution. Incrementalism sets in. Certainty is rewarded and failure punished. In extreme cases meaningful renewal gradually becomes nigh on impossible. All that’s left is a lot of fiddling around the edges. This isn’t innovation in the purest sense. This is just thrashing around.
Recognise crisis and opportunity
So in what circumstances is genuine innovation most likely to flourish? In his highly influential Capitalism and Freedom, first published more than 50 years ago, economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman declared: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.”
He had a point – after all, crises are more often than not situations in which staying the same isn’t a viable option – but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that sometimes the driving force of change is opportunity. The smartphone provides a classic example: it has brought about near-global transformation, yet there was no communications crisis before it came along.
It’s, therefore, advisable both to recognise the crisis points at which innovation becomes inevitable and to identify the myriad opportunities that too often go unnoticed and unexploited. This frequently chimes with the key difference between internal imperatives, which can be planned as part of normal business practice, and external imperatives, which demand a strategy flexible enough to cope with the unexpected.
Ultimately, there are plenty of good reasons to innovate. It’s when organisations try to do it without understanding precisely why that they get into trouble. So beware change for change’s sake. Forget all the lazy rhetoric. Dare to look beyond the buzzword and just keep asking two fundamental questions:
- What can we do better?
- What can we do differently?
Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity with Nottingham University Business School and co-deviser of the Ingenuity problem-solving process taught to students at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGIIE). [email protected]