Innovation: Science or Alchemy?
We stand today, 2010, at a crossroads from an innovation perspective. Innovation is going to become either a reputable science or a disreputable side show, and there are two constituents that will direct the outcomes. Innovation consultants and others who offer innovation services are one group that will dictate how innovation is eventually accepted and perceived, and our prospects and buyers in firms large and small are the others. In just a short time we'll all have to agree that innovation is a science, with repeatable experiments that create real results, or innovation is alchemy, a mystical philosophical magic that promises gold but delivers lead.
Alchemists, you'll recall, were (to some extent still are) people who seek to convert base metals to gold. They worked in secret, always on the brink of discovery of a chemical compound that would instantly create riches from the most common metals. The problem with alchemists is that they consistently overpromised and underdelivered. They cloaked their methods in mystical thinking and secret formulas. They often substituted small amounts of gold that they possessed to demonstrate the ability to convert base metals, and then demanded greater and greater compensation to convert more metal into gold.
We as innovation consultants and practitioners, in partnership with our clients, need to establish clear understanding and expectation about the "art" and "science" that we propose to do. Like alchemists, we propose to turn simple insights and ideas into winning new products, services and business models, faster and more effectively than firms have done in the past. We employ radical tools and creative thinking in ways that are new and different from what many in corporate American have experienced, and there are many within corporate America who believe we in the innovation space are charlatans, out to make a quick buck rather than create a true innovation science.
In some cases those feelings may be correct. When IBM runs an advertisement that shows a team lying on the floor in the dark "ideating", people may believe that seems odd and strange. While I've been in the innovation space over six years, I've never had my clients lie on the floor in the dark. Perhaps that is valuable, or perhaps IBM was making fun of these uncertain approaches. But when we as practitioners introduce radically new ways of creating insights or ideas, we need to also demonstrate the value proposition and the outcomes. Recently I saw that Imaginatik has released the ability for its clients to capture ideas using mobile devices. This has both a positive and a negative connotation. If we are capturing ideas on the go because people are now more mobile, then that's reasonable. If we are promoting that technology because "you just never know when someone will have a good idea" then that suggests that innovation is unmanageable and is a black art after all, which could only contribute to the thinking that innovation is alchemy.
We need to demonstrate that innovation is a repeatable process, a science, based on useful tools and techniques and linked directly to important corporate goals and strategies. Innovation is simply a tool to accelerate the development of valuable and useful products and services, and a method to identify emerging opportunities or threats, hopefully before they are realized. What alchemists understood was that kings needed wealth to cement their power and project force, so they attempted to create a simple, easy way for kings and rulers to acquire gold, knowing it was a sham. What innovators need to understand is that executives need new products, services and business models to sustain competitive advantage, and we need to demonstrate our methods are more science than alchemy.
Our buyers need to help as well. Rather than consider innovation a sideshow where everyone will run around wearing funny hats and talking about outlandish concepts the firm can't possibly accomplish, people within the corporation need to clearly state corporate objectives and strategies and determine which efforts can be accelerated by placing their best thinkers in a process that accelerates idea generation. Sure, we may occasionally use mystical tools like creative thinking and idea generation, but those tools are harnessed to an important end goal and used within a repeatable innovation process. If our buyers approach innovation as an impossible last resort to change the business, rather than a respectable business method to improve and change the business, then we and they have already failed. An innovator cannot create interesting, useful ideas that will be implemented in a business, any more than alchemists can convert lead into gold, if the participants in the business aren't committed to the tools, don't believe change is possible and remained locked in old ways of thinking.
To create an innovation science, two things have to change. We, the innovation practitioners, must demonstrate the tools we use are practical and reasonable, and our methods are repeatable and deliver value. We need to strip away any magic and demonstrate the value of the methods, tools and processes we use. This doesn't mean that we don't on occasion use a wide variety of tools and techniques that a firm finds uncomfortable or different. The definition of insanity, according to Einstein, is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. We need new ways of thinking to solve new problems, we just have to demonstrate that they work and are based on science and process.
The second thing that must change is that our buyers and business partners, the people within businesses who need innovation, must change. They must understand that innovation isn't a black art or a side show, but a process that requires commitment, communication, cultural change and, yes, some new methods and tools. Until innovation is viewed as a consistent, repeatable business process that happens to have some interesting tools and techniques, and not a brief interlude by a "tin hat" brigade, innovation will be viewed as more alchemy than science, and most reasonable people should be expected to reject alchemists.
As I wrote earlier, innovation as a strategic tool for growth and differentiation, stands at a crossroads. In the next few years it will either be accepted as a reputable science and incorporated as part of any operating business model within larger corporations, or it will be regarded as an interesting sideshow, more alchemy than science, and while possibly valuable, too strange or different to be adopted consistently. How this gets resolved is based on the results we innovators can deliver, the tools and techniques we use and the expectations and commitments of our clients to adopt the thinking and methods we recommend.