Comical Innovation

Innovation has likely never been more important and that’s why its study and practice is no laughing matter.

The systemic changes that are underway and amplified by the pandemic that arrived in 2020 has meant enormous changes for sectors across society and the world — one’s that will require attention for the decade to come.

Uncertainty is one of the most defining qualities of the present day and will likely be with us for years to come as social, financial, service and educational transformations take place as society starts to shape its post-pandemic existence. That existence is something that will be both designed and imposed by limitations that we’ve partly created with the systems we had in place prior to 2020 and the ones we put into place moving forward.

It’s with this in mind that the language of innovation becomes more important. As Tom Fishburne’s comic above illustrates, language can reflect the times and make mockery of what we’re doing without real consideration. Agile is one of those terms that gets used a lot and done so uncritically. It is one of those terms that I’ve called performative innovation theatre.

Problems and Definitions

What makes the comic above work so well is that it points to multiple truths. The first few panels are reflective of a mindset that is framed for innovation. It’s about recognizing that there is uncertainty and that many of the issues we face may be complex — ill defined, dynamic, and interconnected with other issues . The last panel points to the way we use terms uncritically as part of that performative theatre.

It’s when we can’t explain what Agile — or any of a number of innovation-related buzzwords are — that we run into trouble. It’s much like design thinking and how many cannot explain what it is meant to do or show what evidence there is to support it despite its promotion.

It is for this reason that starting out requires something very simple, but rarely done: define your problems and set your language. Yes, these may change and evolve, but if you don’t know what you’re talking about to yourself you will never be able to share it with others or set the evaluative metrics to help you learn from what you do. Clear definitions can help you learn about what you don’t know as much as what you know, which can set you up to discover and learn better. By knowing your unknowns and knowns innovators are better able to focus their learning, which is what the heart of innovation is all about.

Even defining something upfront and having that definition change is OK. It’s at the heart of developmental design and evaluation, which is what innovation is all about.

Be upfront with your terminology and definitions – or don’t use them. Unless you’re looking for your innovation comic to become the real joke.

Image by Tom Fishburne used under license.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

2 thoughts on “Comical Innovation

  • January 4, 2021 at 11:43 am
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    HaHa Love that and I bloody hate design thinking: the proselytes have rarely studied design and in terms of thinking, know little more than ubiquitous coffeeshop psychobabble. I poked fun at the innovatists myself, which might make you laugh https://complexwales.com/2015/01/20/innovation/

  • January 4, 2021 at 11:50 am
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    Thanks for the comment and sharing your article — it’s great! I did indeed laugh, particularly with the long list of pseudo definitions for innovation. People love to come up with them, yet few really articulate what they actually mean.

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