The best innovations fix the problems of the last innovation.
It looks like this month’s edition of the Wall Street Journal Magazine is all about played out concepts no one gives a shit about anymore. How else do you explain a cover featuring Angelina Jolie with the word “Innovators”. It’s not there to sell issues, because this is a freebie that comes with the paper.
“Innovators” is such an overplayed word that’s lost any useful meaning. It’s like the word “fascinating”. Instead of meaning extremely interesting, it’s used to describe someone who is trying really hard to be famous.
TED Talks, Green Ketchup, and now this. There’s a Kickstarter project for something called a smart water bottle. It’s not stupid products that bothers me, it’s the fascination “inventors” have with themselves that’s wearing thin. You don’t need all this fanfare for cranking out something that’s ultimately going to end up on a shelf at Kohl’s or mall kiosk.
A study from last year suggests many of us might not actually like creativity as much as we say we do. That should come as no surprise for anyone who has tried to push for change within their organization. People talk a good game about creativity in the form of cliches, but their actions demonstrate otherwise.
Most of us like the promise of creativity and it’s potential outcomes, but we’re either worried or suspicious of the process. If you try to think about it from their perspective, it’s not unreasonable.
For those of us who like to push the envelope, upset the apple carts, and turn the world upside down, think about the following. Most of us only find creativity interesting when it’s new, like a puppy. Over time it’s novelty wears off and it’s just a dog. We still love the dog, but we were smitten with the puppy.
Ask yourself whether you’re trying to solve problems with the status quo, or just trying to express yourself. The former is the difference between creativity and innovation. The status quo is innovation’s rival. It’s probably the result of a prior innovation which took a lot of work and requires a lot of work to maintain.
Those who built and benefit from the status quo have a vested interests in it, even if it’s not getting the job done. The really innovative people in an organization are the ones pointing out problems long before anyone else sees them, or is willing to acknowledge they could exist.
I’m not saying you should give up, even though it is an option, it’s just important to know what you’re up against.
Pursuing something innovative for the sake of creative expression isn’t worth it. That might be what’s in the back of some people’s mind when they shoot down an idea. Anyone can have an idea, but somebody has to execute. If you don’t have ideas on how that will happen, or the impact on others, then don’t be surprised if they’re not as thrilled about the idea as you are. They might think your baby is ugly too.
I had the good fortune today of attending the Summer Celebration for Design For America.
Today was the day the teams presented their projects to sponsors, mentors, and peers. It was truly inspiring. Back in August my company, Idea Momentum, ran a prototyping workshop for them. It was one of a series that was part of their Summer Studio program.
For those of you unfamiliar with DFA, it’s a freaking cool program that was started at Northwestern University by a professor named Liz Gerber. It takes students from various majors like engineering, biology etc. and introduces them to user-centered design methods. The goal is to come up with solutions for pressing social issues.
Our workshop was towards the end of the process, so we were able to see all the ideas before they had a chance to really gel. So it was especially interesting to see how much the ideas all evolved for the better in such a short period.
For this Summer’s studio program, there were four teams with different assignments:
- Reduce falls among the aging
- Reduce obesity among young children through healthier eating habits
- Reduce water waste at restaurants
- Reduce unemployment among the disabled
If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking they’ve all bit off more than they can chew. Today’s event was a presentation of all four teams ideas for solutions. Not only did each group present great ideas, they presented plausible solutions.
These kids all came up with solutions that were easy to grasp and totally feasible. To me that’s at the heart of innovation. Otherwise, who cares if you can come up with big ideas to big problems if they’ll never get implemented. That’s just an exercise in futility.
Lastly, I don’t want to leave out Sami and Thea, who are doing an awesome job running the day to day and nitty gritty. Thanks for inviting us.
There’s a common lament about the lack of innovation coming out of large corporations. I don’t know why anyone is surprised. I can think of at least three non-trivial issues staring us in the face and they have to do with incentive and motivation.
It’s common sense, not socialism to be angry at the lopsided way people are compensated in big companies. Why in the world would anyone in their right mind do something new when the only people benefiting are those who are already making 10-20 times as much as me? Money is a powerful motivator for innovating. But if you look at many publicly traded companies, innovation isn’t rewarded. When it comes to money in big companies, them that got is them that gets. People in the C-Suite are outrageously compensated even when the overall company underperforms. If you were to do something innovative in a big company, there’s a good chance only a select few will reap the rewards, not including yourself of course.
A way to fix this problem would be for companies to put their money where their mouth is. If you actually want innovation, you need to reward the innovators within your organization the way you reward your managers. The other option would be to reward innovation, not cost cutting, at the highest level. Innovative leaders can inspire and motivate those beneath them to do the same.
In large companies, “the process” is the culture. And yet, process is the antithesis of innovation. It’s about standardizing and normalizing, i.e. ensuring consistent results. Process is meant to drive out uncertainty, ambiguity, and serendipity, all key innovation ingredients. Most large companies reward you for how well you follow a process paying little attention to the outcomes.
Entrepreneurial people within organizations find ways around the processes to get things done. This understandably makes some people nervous. Therefore, outsiders and deviators of the process are pariahs even if their intentions are good.
A way to fix this is to let those who want to be entrepreneurial have their say. Don’t immediately tell someone to drop their suggestion in the box. They know that’s meaningless. Instead of putting more process in place, allow for more conversations. Don’t just have meetings to check the status of projects. Meet to actually talk about ideas. Yes, those meetings may last more than an hour, but they could pay off later in less work.
Innovation within large organizations is something only a few people get to do. At cutting edge companies like Apple, only a select few are in a position to do something innovative. In fact, for the majority of people that work there, it’s preferred they keep their opinions on products to themselves. Having worked there, I found it very frustrating. Meanwhile, I can’t say it was always a bad thing. There was no shortage of armchair quarterbacks who thought they had the one great idea everyone should listen to.
Unfortunately, confining creativity and innovation to certain roles, people, or groups breeds contempt. After all, who wouldn’t want to be labeled innovative when you see how much the press fawns over them. The only difference between an innovative person, and everyone else is they have lots of ideas – good and bad – not just one silver bullet.
A potential fix is to make sure there is some cross pollination of people from different groups within your organization. When people who think they have a great idea get to interact with people who actually have lots of ideas, they see how much work it is to being innovative. They also see it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. There’s a lot to be said for people who can be effective operationally. Not everyone needs to be the mad genius.