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Innovation Station

Apologies in advance for the quasi-Schoolhouse Rock reference, but it’s too late for that. In today’s segment I discuss innovation. Organisations want innovation, and some claim to be innovative, but what qualifies as innovation. The best place to start might be with a definition, followed by some context.

Innovate is an intransitive verb. A decent working definition is ‘to introduce new things, ideas or ways of doing something‘. Straight away, we can anticipate a challenge. I call this the new car qualification: is this new, or just new to you.

I just bought a new car. It’s a 1968 something-or-other. It’s less likely to be new, than to be new to me.

This is where I resort to my upper case-lower case distinction. New innovation is qualified as upper-case Innovation. Lower case innovation is reserved for borrowed innovation, applying existing innovation to a different situation.

For the purpose of this segment, I’m going to filter this through a cultural lens. Superimposing this on an organisation, the result is three categories:

  1. Organisations who practice upper case I Innovation
  2. Organisations who practice lower case i innovation. These can be further subdivided into fast-followers and late adopters
  3. And organisations who do not materially innovate, preferring the comfort zone of the status quo over change

I’d like to be able to envisage this as a somewhat normal distribution, a typical Gaussian bell curve, but upper case Innovation is a rare beast. Some organisations are open to adopting a lot of external innovations. More organisations are reluctant to adopt many new innovations, and when they do, they do so reluctantly and are late adopters. Thankfully, there aren’t many who outright eschew adopting any innovation.

Chart: Innovation Distribution

Enlightenment Age notable, Diderot said, ‘Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.’ I apply this sentiment to fax machines and paper cheques. Innovations in their day, but anachronisms in the twenty-first century.

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

Denis Diderot

The accompanying innovation Distribution is illustrative and not to scale. Rather, it reflects my anecdotal observations and captures my sentiment.

In my opinion, that most organisations do not truly innovate is not a big deal. These organisations should be focused on their core competencies, whatever these may be. However, I would hope for more fast borrowing lower case innovators, and I just don’t see it. The common excuses are applicability and budget, but it’s more typically just cultural resistance. This resistance may be at the top, at the bottom, or both, but the effect is the same.

And there are intermediate effects. If the resistance is at the top, the organisation becomes frustrated, as they are likely aware of other organisations that have adopted this or that. They may have even come from another organisation that had already adopted something they see as useful, perhaps even at university or in high school. If the resistance is at the bottom, organisational change management is a solution. In this case, people are stuck in their ways of doing things, and they may feel threatened by the innovation, rightfully or otherwise. If it’s both top and bottom, this organisation is more likely to be late adopters or resisters.

Most organisations are not monoliths, so some department or another may take the early adoption lead on innovation, but this is not likely going to keep enough pace to sustain viability.

Most organisations are not monoliths, so some department or another may take the early adoption lead on innovation, but this is not likely going to keep enough pace to sustain viability.

I’d guess that most companies are cautious late adopters. Not only are they waiting for some critical mass of adoption in a safety in numbers sort of way, but they are waiting for any major bugs to be worked out and a way to figure out how to implement the innovation in their own organisation.

It’s always interesting to me how many organisations think that they are unicorns, when a more apt analogy is the commodity of wheat. Organisations are 80 per cent similar, and yet, from a problem-solving perspective, they tend to think they are snowflakes with intractable problems never before encountered. But illusory superiority is a topic for another segment.

To be fair, there is a risk to innovation and early adoption. Innovative ideas can fail, or the may manifest before their time. This past decade, we can look to Google Glass as a relatively innovative idea, adopted by some and then abandoned, save for some targeted applications. Peacock.

Some early adopters shelled out some cash to acquire a solution already reaching a dead end. Late adopters can revel that they weren’t taken in by this false promise, but at the same time they are overlooking a lot of beneficial innovation, much of this organisational and cultural improvements rather than gadgets like Google Glass.

Resisters vary in shape and form from Luddites to contrarians, but the world doesn’t stop moving. Can these organisations survive? Maybe. Will they thrive. This is less likely. They can limp along. They’ll either be the live lobster, succumbing to slowly boiling water, or the craftworkers? hewing bespoke artefacts. I’m not judging.

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