Friday, November 07, 2014

The first steps on the road to innovation success

Every day I'm not on a client site I come in early, to catch up on what's going on in the world.  More often than not I'm doing that by scanning Twitter, to see what the folks I follow are writing about or linking to.  I think of Twitter as my curated news stream, bringing me more information and news about innovation and new product development than I could possibly find on my own.

One of the things that troubles me about the Twitter stream is the frequency of the word "why".  Yes, I know that starting with a question is click bait, and any Tweet or post that can answer a meaningful question is likely to get opened and read.  But I think there's another factor at play.  Many of the people I follow on Twitter are experts or at least interested in innovation.  And the fact that so many of them feel that so often they must start with "why" isn't a nod to Simon Sinek, but follows on the notion that they must educate their audience.  If those of us in the innovation choir feel the need to continually educate our audiences and each other, what does that say about the state of innovation evolution? 

Using Tweets to describe "why" innovation works, or "why" a specific tool is interesting, or "why" a specific company did something is meant to educate and inform, to explain.  If we are still explaining why things work or are valuable, we don't have a lot of time or even need to describe what's more important - "how" things work.  This predominance of "why" in the innovation Twitter stream leads me to believe that either we on Twitter are underestimating our audience's knowledge of innovation, or that we are still on the first steps on the road to innovation awareness.  I'm afraid it's the latter.

You see, Twitter is not a normal news channel.  It's a channel for people who are highly attuned to a specific field of inquiry or who have a passion for some narrow field of study.  In my experience the vast majority of my clients, and prospects we talk to, don't read or follow innovation tweets.  Not because they are disinterested, but because they don't have time.  Their days and nights are full of work, family, other interests.  This isn't to say that they aren't on Twitter, just that their focus is on other things. 

We innovators have a long way to go to educate and build awareness for innovation.  There's a maturation process that any learner must proceed through, which looks something like this:  awareness, interest, education, experimentation, implementation, knowledge, experience.  The fact that so many of us feel led to talk about "why" innovation is valuable or important leads me to believe that our audience is still in the awareness and interest phases of innovation discovery, rather than in the experimentation, implementation and knowledge phases.  Or, perhaps many of the readers think they are in the "knowledge" phase but their knowledge is so thin, their experience so topical that they miss the greater power of innovation. 

Why are so many still so poorly engaged or have such a shallow understanding of innovation?  One factor lies in the fact that innovation is really poorly defined and has few agreed conventions or standards.  There is no singular authority on innovation, and anyone can hang a shingle and create a methodology and declare that he or she is an expert in innovation.  Another factor is the overwhelming focus on short term profits and efficiency.  Most managers have no time in their day for anything not on the immediate calendar.  They don't want to learn new skills unless those skills will be implemented regularly as part of the day to day job.  Innovation is uncertain, disruptive and distracts from important day to day operations.  And that leads to the final reason we are still using the word "why" a lot:  conversion.

We innovators have a set of beliefs that have been developed over time and passed down from Alex Osborn and others.  We use and believe in a set of tools and methods that are strange and unfamiliar to others, who only occasionally attempt solutions using a handful of these tools, and then using them inadequately or with poor preparation.  Innovation seems a bit uncertain, mysterious but promises a big payoff.  Frankly, innovation sounds a lot like a religion, and what we need is more conversions - people who move from doubt to belief.  That's another reason why so many Tweets about innovation start with "why".  We are trying to overcome the resistance and disbelief.

Perhaps we should ask why we need to start with why.  Why is there an abundance of doubt or resistance?  Why do so many people doubt or distrust innovation that we innovators must constantly defend its worth?  Too often innovation, like religion, has been used to justify a decision or an action that others don't find appealing, or was used to sway opinion. Innovation has frequently been used to over-promise and under-deliver, so there's a healthy sense of skepticism, even among those of us who profess to believe deeply in innovation's power.  And innovation charlatans and mystics abound, unfortunately.  We can't seem to sweep away the mystery and expose the pure underlying power and simplicity that innovation can offer.

Many, many companies are still on the first steps on the road to innovation success, limited by the depth of doubt and mistrust, held back by the lack of time and investment, and skeptical based on previous experiences.  We'll do more to advance innovation by sweeping away a lot of false promises and exposing more of the simple truths, and building experience and confidence broadly rather than retain innovation magic in some high priesthood. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:30 AM


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