Monday, August 18, 2014

The Innovation Dilemma

Innovation is perhaps today’s ultimate buzzword and most over-hyped topic. People can’t seem to get enough of articles and dialog on how Innovation is the answer to any number of potential issues – yet in all the countless discussions occurring online and in print about this topic, how well do any of the folks discussing innovation really understand it? That’s part one of the dilemma. Part two of the dilemma is that for all the lip service about how Innovation needs to be fostered, are we actually in fact fostering it in any meaningful ways (or perhaps worse yet, might we in fact be hindering it through current trends)? We will examine both parts of this question in today’s post.

Let’s start by helping to define what Innovation actually represents in a meaningful context. We’ll begin this by explaining first what innovation is not; it is not:

  • A marketing slogan
  • A collection of admirable ideas awaiting exploitation
  • The province of rarefied genius or Silicon Valley risk takers
  • Accidental or otherwise random in nature 
  • And lastly – Innovation is not thought (e.g. Innovative Thinking) – thought without application perhaps qualifies as day-dreaming. Innovation is Actionable Thought embedded within the context of a larger problem solving activity. 

Innovation is a process, not an individual event. That process has a ‘macro’ or Global perspective as well as a Local perspective. In other words, the Global process of Innovation encompasses all of the Local processes – the smaller efforts impact the cumulative achievements at the Global level. There is also often synergistic inter-relationships between various local innovation “threads.”

An example of a complex Innovation process

Definitions (Innovation in Theory):
Innovation – This represents the deliberate (reproducible, consistent) process associated with solving specific problems. The process is evolutionary, incremental and focused on specific, well-defined goals. The key concept here is that Innovation is not an anomalous or ephemeral activity; it is most definitely not “magic happens here.”

Local Innovation – Any individual application of an innovation process within a closed community/entity.  This does not imply that the community or entity is somehow cut off from the global community, merely that it has its own a unique charter.

Global Innovation – Any number of local communities may be working to solve the same problems. These problems can be referred to as innovation threads. The level of collaboration or cooperation will vary between these communities, yet on the whole there is usually some information exchange that at times will allow individual local innovation to influence or otherwise contribute to global innovation progress (and conversely, progress acknowledged at the Global will of course any number of Local efforts).

Innovation Threads – An Innovation thread is the collective effort towards resolving a unique problem. Obviously, there are cases where one group defines a similar problem somewhat differently, but in general the progress made in one variation of a particular thread may be applicable to another similar one.

Innovation in Practice

One of the best examples of what differentiates innovation in popular mythology with Innovation in practice is the case of the Wright Brothers. Their story is not one of a handful of good ideas punctuated by the glorious realization of their dreams of flight, but rather the many years of tireless work and massive amount of invention that had to occur in order to achieve a specific goal associated with one very famous problem – “how to achieve powered flight.”

The Wright B Flyer

The Wright Brothers didn’t just look at a bird and shout “Eureka.” They redefined the science of aerodynamics, testing hundreds of airfoil designs. To do this they had to redefine the mathematics of aerodynamics, they had to invent the wind tunnel and more. In short, they had to solve 100’s of related problems in order to resolve the main problem that started their quest. Theirs was an example of local innovation – however it was so profound that it completely redefined the Global scope of innovation for aerodynamics. And we still fly in planes based entirely their designs and principles today.

Another important characteristic of what the Wright Brothers did was its entirely practical focus. Everything they did was goal-focused. This differentiates it from many research and development programs that have arisen over the past 50 to 75 tears in that oftentimes research programs do not have specific, tangible goals in mind. (in other words, they are not entirely pragmatic in nature).

Dilemma 2
Now that we might have a better idea of what Innovation actually represents, let’s consider whether we as a society are actually encouraging or discouraging it. To do that we need to consider a couple of related questions, including:

  1. Can innovation be taught, and if so how would that happen?
  2. What sort of incentives might help to spur innovation?
  3. What might represent disincentives for innovation?

We will answer these questions one at a time…

Can Innovation be Taught?
Yes, it can (and we will explore that topic in more detail in a future post). But is our current expectation of what represents education that fosters innovation accurate – well, no. In our previous example of practical innovation (The Wright Brothers), the main idea was that the entire exercise was problem focused. What they learned, invented and achieved was all focused on a central goal. The vast majority of education today is in contrast not goal-focused. Moreover, it tends to be highly standardized and this trend is getting worse every year. There are some exceptions of course, but for the main part our educational systems today judge students based upon conformity of thought as evidenced through an ever-expanding list of assessment tests. This shift towards assessment testing has a chilling over-all effect on curriculum, making it more and more abstract and less focused on systematic problem-solving. In the United States, we are now teaching almost entirely to the test.

The way most experts have framed education that might somehow foster innovation is by decrying that more education ought to include science and math education (STEM). So, remarkably all of the focus towards achieving more innovation has been directed at what is being taught as opposed to how it is being taught. There is an obvious flaw in this logic that is borne out in almost every field of practical application. This is a massive and complex topic and we are of course just skimming the surface.

What sort of Incentives might encourage Innovation?
Well, this might include incentives both within education and in industry. Incentives within Education might include rewarding problem-solving skills in terms of assessment or college admission and structuring curriculum to encourage development of problem solving skills. These types of skills are in some ways diametrically opposed to the type of assessment testing which is currently so popular now. The idea is of course, is being able to question rather than mimic current thinking in order to develop the types of new perspectives needed to progress beyond current capabilities.

In industry, many assessments are more or less natural – in other words – solutions that effectively solve problems become popular and profitable. However, many such solutions can’t get funding to reach this point – so one area that can be improved is the access to capital (both in the government and private sectors, and for the federal sector R & D can become entirely problem focused rather than random).

What things tend to discourage Innovation?

A misdirected educational system, as discussed already, represents a serious discouragement towards fostering education, but it is not the only problem. Other issues include:

  • A misguided dilution of labor incentives. This sounds a little complex but what it means is that since about the year 2000, a two-tier technology labor scenario has arisen in the United States. The introduction of temporary Visas based upon the mistaken notion that there was a technology labor shortage has in fact displaced several million technology workers here and resulted in the introduction of millions of IT workers who get paid roughly half of what the standard wage would otherwise be. Add this to off-shoring, and what we have created an environment of uncertainty in area where we should be fostering confidence in terms of securing a large, stable technology workforce. 
  • Within individual organizations, despite the hype that seems to imply otherwise, risk-taking and divergent solution approaches are most often discouraged. For organizations to become innovative there generally needs to be some cultural transformation – this is very difficult to achieve. 
The goal with this post was to help refine the dialog about innovation a bit – get beyond the platitudes and start discussing how it can or should work. We will revisit this topic again in coming months…

Copyright 2014, Stephen Lahanas



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