Everyone talks about innovation.
We talk about innovating products, processes, and technologies. There are piles of books on innovation. There are entire college courses focused on innovation. After perusing much of the literature on innovation, and being responsible in many ways for innovation over the course of my career, I have come to the considered conclusion that the most innovative thing about innovation is the fact that it means so many different things to so many different people and in so many different contexts. Individuals in nearly every organization make claims of innovation, but many are doing nothing more than innovating the way they talk about the same products and capabilities. We must challenge what we call innovation and what impact it has. Is it innovation to use a hammer to hammer in a nail? Not really, unless you try to do it in outer space. So let’s take a step back from all this innovating and consider what we might really mean by the concept of innovation and how our differing perceptions may actually be changing the way we innovate.
First Principles: What’s it really all about?
A simple etymological study of the word “innovation” shows us that it comes from the Latin words for “into” and “new.” So far so good. We are innovating when we are making something new. Making new things is innovation. So what about if I develop a new piece of software that does word processing? (I can’t help but point out that as I consider this question I am using a word processor to write this article.) Some might argue that my new word processor could still be “innovation” if the new one has new functionality. Others might argue that it is still innovation if it does the same thing as the old word processor, but more easily or more efficiently. Our definition is quickly evolving. I can do something new, or something old in a new way.
What about doing something new in an old way? That seems odd at first, until you consider it. For example, I could use an old method, such as machine learning, to do something never before done, such as understanding the impact of the Internet of Things on cyber attacks in the context of a newly- released firewall technology. Our definition of “innovation” starts to include all of the combinations of new and old: doing new things in new ways, doing new things in old ways, doing old things in new ways. One exception might be doing old things in old ways. (I think they call that tradition, which is perhaps a subject for a different article.) Innovation can also take the form of progressive decomposition: breaking down large, unsolved problems into smaller, still unsolved problems. A good example of this phenomenon might be cancer research.
So far, my innovation bricolage is fairly obvious and benign. However, there are types of innovation that don’t necessarily result in benevolent outcomes. What about new forms of cyber attacks, or new types of fraud? For example, there is a recent spate of bots designed to auto-call unsuspecting individuals and trick them into saying the word “yes” so that the recording of the victim’s voice can be later used to substantiate false claims that they agreed to something that was not part of the bot’s call. That scam is very clever (at least the first time), but not very nice, and certainly malfeasant. No doubt, innovation that is intended to obviate the law or to cause harm or mischief is still innovation. This observation brings up an interesting point about innovation. It’s not optional. Someone will always innovate. If not you, than your competitors or the bad guys. Innovation presents both opportunity and risk.
The opportunity cost of failing to innovate is often the ceding of an advantage to others, often to our own detriment. Sometimes, this phenomenon is masked by complacency or overconfidence.
Results: The impact of innovation
A concept often considered along with innovation is disruption. Innovation disrupts. It also changes the way things are done, or at the very least challenges the way we think. Some innovation is not very disruptive. A laser pointer is helpful, but it’s really just a long stick. I could still use…a long stick in most cases. True, I can do things with a laser pointer that I can’t do easily (or at all) with a long stick. For example, I could point to something on the top façade of a large building while standing on the ground or amuse a cat for hours on end. However, neither of these capabilities actually forces me to change the way I behave. There is little or no disruption.
Let’s consider a more nuanced definition of innovation that disrupts:
- Force a change in behavior – Once the innovation happens, we have no choice but to consider it. An example would be cloud computing. Once the concept is introduced, we have no choice but to reconsider data security, recovery, etc.
- Expose poorly understood relationships – Innovation often helps us to understand things more intimately. Artificial intelligence (AI) helps us to understand the relationship among previously disparate pieces of information to a clearly understood goal. Prior to the introduction of this technology, many such relationships were too complex to consider.
- High potential impact for malfeasance – We should never forget that there can be unintended use of new technology or other innovation. All innovation efforts should include some consideration of the degree of impact of unintended use. A good example here is the use of social media to coordinate criminal activity.
- High potential benefit for response to disruptive events (e.g. emergency preparedness) – Disruptive and innovative technologies could be used during times of unanticipated disrupting events. Some great examples can be found in the steps being taken to address the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
- High opportunity cost for ignoring technologies with a rapid rate of adoption – A good example would be the risk of failing to consider AI in the context of autonomous self-driving vehicles. Such technology could save lives or dramatically improve the human condition. For example, autonomous vehicles are being used for mountain rescue in areas where rescuers would otherwise be at great risk.
These are just some of the frames that might be considered in a review of the way that innovation disrupts, or forces change. The important thing for any innovation effort is to consider a more nuanced view of innovation that includes otherwise overlooked dimensions of the effort.
Failing to consider a more nuanced view of innovation can leave us with a focus on simply doing new things, without considering crucial dimensions such as unintended impact and opportunity cost.
The New Normal: Innovation is ubiquitous; recognizing it is not.
Clearly, if we look beyond the obvious new products and technologies, innovation is far more pervasive than it may seem at first blush. Social, regulatory, and environmental perspectives reveal that innovation (using the broader definitions suggested here) is all around us. The pace of change, driven by new data, new technology, and new analytical capabilities, is pushing nearly every industry at an unprecedented pace. Careful adoption of new technology and consideration of how we evolve our products and services can help us to serve customers in previously unimaginable ways, to address marginalized others to improve society as a whole, or even to simply realize that we have unsolved problems that were previously hidden.
Perhaps the most important warning for the modern era is that we do not become complacent about innovation. We must recognize what is new and different, and how both risk and opportunity shift as the availability of new products and capabilities continue to expand.
It is somewhat ironic that innovation itself is no longer new. It has become the necessary mindset to cope with a pace of change that is brought about by the current explosion of information and technology. Our challenge, as leaders and practitioners in a world that is experiencing innovation at a pace never before imaginable, is to channel that progress in ways that matter.