Sunday, June 28, 2009

Innovation, is it really so important?

Last Friday , at the Solvay annual MBA gala in Brussels I was asked what the word innovation meant to me. Instead of giving an answer there and then, I asked for some time to consider the question, after all it was late and topics such as this are not the lightest to handle after a couple of glasses of wine.

I remember reading, just the other week, that ‘all companies need to innovate themselves out of the recession’ and I wondered what the world would be like if they could? If the solution could ever be that simple and if innovation were to be treated like a commodity, why didn’t we simply bring in the professional innovators? After all, it is all too easy to criticize and yet so difficult to propose a solution or an original idea.

With whole websites geared over to innovation (such as: www.innovationtools.com) and people speaking about innovation as if they had invented it for themselves, it got me wondering…

Firstly I want to share with you, the Chambers’ dictionary definition of innovation, just so that we cannot have any misunderstandings:
I quote: ‘Innovate: v.t. to renew, alter: to introduce something as new… a novelty, the substitution of one obligation for another.’ So this definition does not help us much. Wikkipedia tells us: ‘The term innovation means a new way of doing something. It may refer to incremental, radical, and revolutionary changes in thinking, products, processes, or organizations.’ – Now that’s more like it!

It is important, however, that we do not get carried away with the second definition and confuse invention and innovation. To 'invent' almost implies creating something out of nothing, as in research and development. Whereas, in the truest sense of the word, 'innovation' is more about using the crux of something that already exists but in a new and different way. And this, to me, defines innovation as possibly the most important tool (or concept) for gaining increased efficiency and new hope into tired businesses and projects.

So 'yes' is the answer to my question, without doubt. Innovation is absolutely essential for taking something that is broken and putting it to good use, maybe even for something that it was never originally intended for. If you link this concept to personnel, it is not a giant leap to imagine that for people that are de-motivated; that possibly worry if they will still have a job at Christmas, or feel that the skills they have are no longer suited to what society is needing right now, you do not need to have a Phd to realize that it is innovation that they need to re-invent belief and their own self net worth. To be truly innovative we need to be open minded, confident, daring and certainly not risk averse.

So when you see people taking on responsibility, even for what might seem as a daft idea, and when you hear people say “What the heck, it’s worth a try, what have we got to loose?” Then you know that hope has infiltrated its way into your project or business. And as long as you do not dampen out the creative flames with bureaucracy and sarcasm, then you stand a good chance of survival. Because first ideas are often crazy, but soon people gather round to watch the madness and in doing so offer help and make suggestions with the frequent result that is often both surprising and profitable. What’s more, it was ‘their’ idea and not yours and ‘they’ will work and work in order to show you that they have a worth, a vision, an idea, a possible way forward.

(To misquote Tennyson’s in memoriam) it is better to have tried and fail, than never to have tried at all.
Wishing you an innovative week,

Harley

1 comment:

phw said...

It appears indeed that innovation is a concept that everybody talks about without ever bothering to give it a precise meaning. I attended the launch meeting of the European Alliance for Innovation the other day. After several hours of discussion, nobody was able to define innovation. I tried to make up a definition on the spot. Here it is: "innovation is the process whereby an entreprise - the engine of the economy - puts itself into the position to generate wealth in a sustainable manner". I am not sure what this attempt is worth... However, it appeared important to me to link innovation to the economic cycle and more particularly to the entreprise as driver of the economy. In my mind, I envisaged innovation in parallel with "creativity" (the process whereby an artist - the driver of the artistic cycle - puts himself into the position to generate beauty in a sustainable manner). Is it correct to link innovation so strongly to the economy and wealth generation? I think it is. After all, patents that are meant to serve as proof of innovativeness also foresee that their "holder" is solely entitled to reap wealth from his innovation for a given period of time...

The Oxford Dictionary merely refers to innovation as the act of "bringing in new methods, new ideas". A rather bland definition for a concept around which International Conferences gather for hours at end...