Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship…the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.
― Peter F. Drucker
Innovation as a focus is everywhere – because we can’t do it. It is essential to our economic and national future, yet we are terrible at it!
Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.
― Winston Churchill
We have created a society that routinely crushes innovative thinking. We understand the importance of innovation, but refuse to create the conditions that nurture it. Most of the time we do the opposite. One sterling example of innovation crushing behavior is the misapplication of project management to scientific research. We apply the same approach to building a bridge or repaving a road as supposedly “cutting-edge” research project. In the process the project is on time and under-budget, but stripped of innovative research. The whole notion of “scheduled breakthroughs” is an anathema to successful research, yet pervasive in current management practice. The only objective that is achieved in the process is control, but the soul of the work is destroyed.
To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well.
― Isaac Asimov
The problem isn’t the planning per se, but rather trying to stick to the plans. Planning is useful, even essential, but generally not fully actionable with adaptation necessary to actually succeed. Too often in today’s climate, the plans are adhered to despite evidence of their inadequacy. The conditions that allow innovation are a threat to so much in the ordinary day-in, day-out conduct of business and social constructs. By producing a culture of conformity and safety, the conditions that spur new thinking (i.e., innovation) are not allowed to grow and bloom.
Innovation is about practical creativity – it’s about making new ideas useful…
Before innovation – or practical creativity – there is insight. You must see the world differently.
― Max McKeown
While innovation is one of the most effective engines of growth and progress, the conditions allowing it to happen threaten every other aspect of society. This is especially true with today’s hyper-safety, low-risk culture, which has been driven into over-drive by the threat of terrorism. In the long run the greatest damage to our long-term growth is the adoption of the risk-adverse policies and approaches so broadly. Terrorism is only a threat if we allow it to change us, and we have. These constructs provide safety and lower the risk of bad things, but also strangle progress and innovation.
The best way to predict your future is to create it
― Abraham Lincoln
A huge part of this problem is the lack of tolerance for risk. Innovation often fails, and lots of failure yields the opportunity for innovative success. As our society has squashed risk, it has also squeezed out the potential for breakthroughs. The consequence is a safer, more predictable, but much poorer future. Risk and reward are tied closely together. Nothing ventured, nothing gained is the old maxim that applies today. Today no venture that entails even the slightest tinge of risk can be tolerated. The result is no ventures whose outcomes aren’t virtually pre-ordained. Success is broadly achieved only through the systematic diminishment of our objectives.
If you are deliberately trying to create a future that feels safe, you will willfully ignore the future that is likely.
― Seth Godin
These things we do to control outcomes, control people and manage our work all chip away at the conditions necessary for innovation. Innovation requires things to be slightly out of control, slightly unpredictable to succeed. This success is the product of the mixing of ideas that aren’t “supposed” to be in contact. Hotbeds of innovation come from putting disparate people together and allowing interactions to occur in a natural way. Good examples are the old AT&T labs where a generally poor building design caused the interaction of people of greatly differing backgrounds to interact closely. Common areas, dining areas, bathrooms, stairwells, etc. all provide some of the necessary lubrication for innovation. By allowing people to collide in an almost random way, serendipity erupts and innovation blooms.
Dreamers are mocked as impractical. The truth is they are the most practical, as their innovations lead to progress and a better way of life for all of us.
― Robin S. Sharma
Another key is a certain amount of freedom. The freedom to pursue the best outcome even if that outcome is not what was planned. Today the plan has become the arbiter of effort, and we penalize deviations from the plan. The results are disastrous for innovation, which is inevitably a departure from the original plan.
Throughout history, people with new ideas—who think differently and try to change things—have always been called troublemakers.
― Richelle Mead