Innovation Is Like Everyday Life: Mostly Dull and Occasionally Dramatic

Boring and dull get a bad rap. Innovation, despite its popular image, is often boring and dull, but it also leads to fulfilment and that is an exciting outcome worth striving for.

Boring is the day-to-day work that most of us do. It’s consistent, largely uneventful, and steady. It’s what allows us to create reliable service and outcomes we can anticipate.

Paul Taylor argues that innovation gets perhaps too much profile and that boring is good. He’s right. It’s in our understanding of where innovation fits within the context of work that we can start to better support its adoption.

Work: The Mundane

Taylor highlights Jason Fried’s thoughts on work and how it is mostly mundane without innovation and adds:

“Innovation is incredibly rare, so the constant talk of it being common place, something our organisations do everyday is disingenuous. As I tweeted, ‘innovation’ is too often someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about avoiding doing the job they should be doing , and distracting everyone from the things that would actually make a difference to customers in the process.”

Paul Taylor

I agree with the latter part, but not the first part. I agree that innovation is a word that’s often thrown around carelessly without much thought and in ways that detract or distract people from making meaningful change. It’s much like the words disruption or complexity; it’s use doesn’t reflect its potential.

Where I disagree is in the assertion that innovation is rare – although that might be due to a difference in how Paul and I are using the term innovation. Organizations face an increasingly complex environment, innovation is becoming a way of being. Situations and circumstances are requiring organizations to innovate how they work, where they work, what kind of tools they use, and the processes used to support, lead and manage the work. Real-world effects of climate change, the recent COVID-19 pandemic, and widescale adoption of AI are just some of the reasons for this need for innovation. In an environment of such massive and persistent flux we need to innovate not just to improve, but to stay in place.

While some of this innovation is dramatic, much of it is pedestrian. For example, when work went largely remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that change unleashed dramatic changes in operations, technologies, and systems. As COVID has receded, the evolution of the policies and procedures for work that is now remote, hybrid, or otherwise involves many small innovations in things like scheduling, person and task management, and collaboration, but are innovations nevertheless.

Organizations that aren’t designing these small things right are having enormous difficulties.

Innovation, Maintenance, or Both?

Much of this transition in the workplace is dull and boring. It’s small changes to adapt, grow and evolve that comprise much of what passes for innovation. This is where Taylor’s arguments fit. To him, much of this is not innovation, it’s what Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell call maintenance, which I’ve profiled before. There are many other areas where we’ve transitioned our supply chains, delivery systems, software, and personnel management that are also innovative, but also rather unsexy. For the typical worker on a typical day, this means going about their business, adapting here and there, and mostly maintaining what is in place.

“In a typical company 99% of what people do is maintenance, as it should be. 99% of the time should be spent fine tuning the system. It’s not sexy, but it is necessary. We need to start praising the importance of the maintainers, those individuals whose work keeps ordinary existence going rather than introducing novel things.”

Paul Taylor

Is this innovation or is it maintenance? I’d argue its both.

I view innovation and maintenance as part of a spectrum of change. Viewed from this perspective, maintenance can be seen as the means by which we innovate to stay in place. It’s caring for our systems in ways that adapt them to wear and tear or changing conditions that don’t make a substantial difference to the core look, feel, or function of what’s being done. By definition, this is maintenance of what we have.

Innovation is an intentional change that’s noticed (and adds value). It’s meant to reflect an obvious journey from one state to another. Maintenance is less obvious, less transformational, and often unseen altogether. Both are a part of living with change. Innovation is creating things that are new, maintenance is keeping things functioning and moving along after they have been launched into the world. Both involve making a change to a product or system to keep something operational and achieving a goal.

In the middle, I’d place Desenrascanço, the Portuguese word that means “to find an improvised solution to a problem”. This is where maintenance and Innovation meet. I’ll explore this concept more in a future post.

The Fulfillment of Work

When we overload a term like innovation with too much, we (ironically) undermine its value. It’s too important to be ignored, but not so important that it can’t be dull or boring. Whether dull or dramatic, Paul Taylor adds that innovation can be a path to fulfillment, if we let it.

“Fulfilment does not come from some fruitless search for innovation. It’s found in the little things – the everyday occurrences that come from our daily habits and interactions that make our world a little bit better, a little bit easier, for someone. Fulfilment because you attended to someone’s needs.”

Paul Taylor

That’s a great definition of innovation and the kind of environment that supports it.

Fulfillment is also something that we can design into our work. A culture of innovation is one where there is high fulfillment in the work. We see the same pattern with workplaces that place value on the aesthetics of the work and the environment where its done. As Paul Taylor reminds us, this comes when our work has purpose and influence. When we make a difference to others, we make a difference to ourselves as well. Innovation is what can connect this together.

In the next article, we’ll explore why innovation can be such a difficult concept in practice and how we can bring it — and fulfillment — into clearer focus and better use.

Image credits: Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash and Kelli Tungay on Unsplash

1 thought on “Innovation Is Like Everyday Life: Mostly Dull and Occasionally Dramatic”

  1. Pingback: Innovation Has A Language Problem - Censemaking

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