Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A lack of standards makes innovation confusing

I've read about the five phases of a project: 
  1. Euphoria
  2. Disenchantment
  3. Search for the Guilty
  4. Punishment for the innocent
  5. Rewards for the uninvolved.
I've also read about the five stages of grief:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression 
  5. Acceptance
What we need in innovation is a five step method to describe the confusing explosive growth.  Perhaps something like this:

  1. Euphoria
  2. Extensive, unbounded definitions
  3. Impossible expectations
  4. Wild claims
  5. Occasional success
I believe that one of the biggest barriers to innovation is the lack of objective, documented methods, tools and standards.  When virtually anyone can assert a statement as innovation "fact", who knows what to believe?

I was shocked to discover that, based on which innovation "expert" you believe, Raleigh NC (my current hometown) is either the 4th most innovative city in the US (based on a survey recently published by Forbes Magazine) or is the 24th most innovative city, (two slots below Detroit!), based on a report by 2thinknow.  I haven't seen the details behind either report, and I'm sure good, well-meaning people can disagree about certain criteria or metrics.  But isn't this just a bit discongruous?

The fact is that both publications picked innovation metrics that they believed reflect innovation capabilities and results.  Without drilling down into the analysis, it's hard to know which, if either, are correct.  But with such a wide disparity, clearly at least one of them is wrong, if not both.  I argued in an earlier post that Forbes' work relied too heavily on patent generation, which propelled Raleigh up the charts due to the presence of IBM and three major research universities.  However, I don't believe that Raleigh is less innovative than Houston or Detroit, which the 2thinknow report suggests.  A city that doubles in population over ten years with vibrant high tech, biomedical and other growth industries is certainly more innovative than a city that loses half its population in ten years.

These two innovation rankings simply point out a larger issue with innovation.  As long as there are no standards, no agreed metrics, no accepted models, anyone can state with some authority that his or her report, or model, or process, is the "right" one.  Like any fast growth industry, there are a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon selling the latest snakeoil to profit from a lot of confusion.  We in the innovation industry need to begin to recognize that only through the definition of standard measures, processes and models will innovation be recognized as more science than art.  Until we develop standards that can be published and people can review, every offering in innovation is part black magic, and the purveyors profit from that ambiguity and confusion.  It's incumbent on us, innovation practitioners, to begin to agree on standard innovation methods, models and processes, which will identify the best innovation measures and metrics.  All other areas of management specialty have followed the path from folk wisdom to wild claims to organized documented fact.  We no longer guess at whether or not we make a profit - we use Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).  Well, you do if you're not a hedge fund or financial services firm.  But you get my drift.  All the good thinking can be codified so we can provide more clarity to the work.

Is Raleigh the 4th best city for innovation, or the 24th best city for innovation?  Who knows?  There's no agreed way to measure, so both answers could be right, which means the level of uncertainty is far too high.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:13 AM


Anonymous Heidi said...

I totally agree with you on this, Jeff. There are a lot of motivational speakers out there who are preaching innovation, and do it very well -- but without the hard work, observation, and planning it takes to bring an innovative idea to fruition, much less profitability.

I doubt if innovation practices will approach a GAAP level, and in some ways, I hope they won't! But certainly consultants will need to differentiate between the hype and the discipline of innovation.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Jeffrey Baumgartner said...

Interesting post. I wrote on a similar and even more basic issue last year: that of a need for a common language in innovation.

Not only does the field lack standards, but people don't even use the terminology in the same way. Indeed, many innovation consultants probably wouldn't even agree on a definition of the word "innovation"!!

8:38 AM  
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