Innovation is at once everywhere and elusive. Understanding what it really is, how to inspire it, and how to avoid losing its real value in the hype might be the biggest and most ironic challenge for innovators yet.
Psychologist, creativity researcher and systems thinker Keith Sawyer recently asked the question: Is innovation just a washed up trend? To support this thesis, he presents the following:
Evidence: The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday May 23, 2012) argues that the term “innovation” is now so widely used, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore–other than a very general notion of “change.” Longtime WSJ reporter Leslie Kwoh says “Businesses throw around the term to show they’re on the cutting edge….But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating.” And then she gives the biggest insult you can give to a trendy business term, in my opinion: she compares the word “innovation” to the washed-up buzzword “synergy.” Ouch, that hurts!
This makes a point. It’s hard not to question the term seeing that it’s almost everywhere. Earlier in the blog he points to how Bruce Nussbaum eventually added an entire section to Business Week on Innovation and Design to match the demand for news on both of those topics. But as Nussbaum himself has written about the term design thinking, the term innovation may also be on shaking ground from over or poor use. Ironically, this all comes at the time when we need what innovation stands for more than ever and the creative problem framing and solving tools that comes with design thinking.
What’s in a name?
The term innovation is generally described as the act of introducing something to new to create positive value. Design is the act of creating something with intent to produce value. It is no surprise that these two concepts go together so well. Design thinking is about applying conscious thought to the act of creating things those products, services, and policies that have value — it is about contemplation and action related to making things that we want and need. These are loose amalgams of definitions that I’ve come across in my research and reading over the past year in support of the Design Thinking Foundations project and capture much of what these words mean explicitly.
However, implicit in this language is a whole other set of values, prejudices and attitudes that extend the concepts beyond the explicit language into something cultural. One of the byproducts of this is found in overuse or adherence to the hype cycle. Now everything is innovative, when really it shouldn’t be. Sometimes what we are doing is working just fine and the need to create something new is unnecessary.
Yet, as change accelerates in many fields and complexity increases, the need to adapt and develop resilience will increase along with it as will the need to innovate in spaces where innovation is not a familiar term. It may not be needed everywhere, but it will be needed in more places more often with increasing urgency as the dynamic complexity of the worlds we’ve created increases. Even keeping things constant will require some adaptation.
To quote from Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s book, The Leopard: ”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
What happens next?
But what if Keith Sawyer’s speculation is right and the term innovation is on the way out? What happens next? In response to his concerns about design thinking becoming a shadow of itself in the hands of organizations and practitioners who see it as a quick fix or a blunt instrument, Bruce Nussbaum has sought to explore and further develop a concept called creative intelligence. Having spoken to Nussbaum personally about this, I got the sense that his concerns were less that design thinking itself was problematic, but that the concept had reached a stasis in its application that no longer reflected the dynamic force it once did when he first championed it at Business Week.
It’s hard not to see parallels to innovation. While I agree with Nussbaum’s charge at what design thinking has become, I also don’t think it’s a lost concept (see the debate on the Design Thinking LinkedIn group to see evidence of this). I also think creative intelligence focuses on something different, not replaces design thinking. (Besides, we still have systems thinking, critical thinking and other forms of problem conceptualizing that have endured much debate). The problem is that it is far easier to talk about something than do it and talking too much can burn something out to the ears. Hence the reason catch-phrases never last long. Innovation is at risk and so, too, is design thinking.
Is this adaptive language use or a case of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater?
If not innovation (and design thinking), then what?
The concern with throwing these terms out is that much of what passes for judgement on their worth is based on little evidence of effect. While innovation thankfully has enjoyed much research, design thinking lacks much empirical examples. However, in both cases, when the terms are most often written about or discussed in the media and popular social discourse it is rarely about evidence and nearly always on rhetoric. I am guilty of this, too. I often tweet or refer people to articles from blogs like Fast Company and FastCo Design that write heavily on design and innovation, yet present few empirical studies and lots of opinion.
To this, I point to today’s HBR Working Knowledge update from five scholars who have done much research on innovation and summarize their points quite well, including the idea that not all of us can or will be innovators (from Clayton Christensen).
What is the answer? Is it time to move on or shall we try to invigorate the discussion of concepts like innovation and design thinking with dialogue, evidence and (self-referentially) some innovation and design thinking to advance not only the discourse on these topics, but also their adoption, study and adaptation to help us tackle the complex, wicked and pervasive problems that seem to be growing in our world each day.
I stumbled upon this list of “to-dos” and related resources aimed at preparing someone to serve as a design strategist. What I like about the post is the list of resources linked and embedded within. It’s not designed (no pun intended) to be prescriptive, but as a series of things to ponder as one moves into the field. Having engaged in this before, I wished I’d considered a few of these before starting out.
I came across this post thanks to the Design Thinkers group on LinkedIn, which has shown itself to be quite active and engaged.
This month’s Harvard Business Review is focusing on failure, showcasing a concept that was once avoided at all costs. But is this new lexicon of success by failure really helpful?
The global design firm IDEO has a mantra that caught my attention when it was first shown to me many years ago.
Fail often to succeed sooner
The thinking behind this is that lots of ineffective ideas create the likelihood that one of them will be effective. In other words, to generate good ideas, you need to first generate a lot of bad ones.
This month, the Harvard Business Review, features a special issue on the subject of failure and how it impacts organizations and innovation.
It seems we have come a long way from a culture that once embraced the words of NASA flight director Gene Kranz who, in speaking of the efforts to save the Apollo 13 mission and crew, told his charges:
Failure is not an option
It is perhaps ironic that the Apollo 13 mission is held as one of greatest examples of creative problem-solving ever cited.
Failure is a tricky beast as it invokes a lot of emotion. Decades of formal education have taught us to fear failure and that it was a negative thing. It was one thing to get a low grade on an assignment, but to outright fail a course was (for some) a fate worse than death. It is for that reason that the widespread embracing of the concept seems so unusual.
In his column in HBR, Daniel Isenberg seeks to calm the enthusiasm for failure that has taken over much of the discourse on innovation:
Well-intentioned though they may be, these attempts to celebrate failure are misguided. Fear should not be confused with anxiety—and celebrating failure seems aimed at reducing anxiety.
To deal with the anxiety part, Isenberg points to three strategies:
1. Accept failure as a natural part of doing business
2. Remove structural obstacles to reduce the objective risks of a failed venture
3. Turn failure into fodder
The last one is perhaps the most important for anyone seeking to make good from bad, but this language in itself is what I find problematic (including my use of the term “good” and “bad”). As Shakespeare’s Hamlet suggests:
Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so
The concept of failure, as discussed above, hinges on language of fear and cultural expectations of success. In some cultures, this can be overly intense (see my post on Tiger Moms). Rather than viewing outcomes as failures or successes, might it not be worth considering a spectrum of effectiveness from “highly relevant discoveries” (making obvious strides towards achieving an objective) to “less relevant discoveries” (non-obvious strides towards an objective). It’s a small point, but one worth noting.
If we fear failure and it has been engrained as something to fear most of our life, any celebrating it now is going to fall on deaf (unconscious) ears. And if that is true, we will be losing opportunities to innovate. If people embraced failure all the time, HBR wouldn’t need a special issue.
Our entrainment to what we see as “success” also leads us to certain dominant perspectives of what that means, shutting down discourse on other ways of seeing the problem. My post yesterday on the Toronto slutwalk hints at this: if we focus on the sensational elements we miss the deeper meaning; by diving too deeply into an issue we risk missing ways to connect more broadly.
The entire success / failure language requires recasting the entire language into something less anxiety producing and more optimistic: a sort of Twitter Fail Whale for innovation. By removing the fear of discovery, we are much more likely to innovate and that is good for all of us.