An Innovation Definition: Something That Does Not Work Yet

Those of us that spend a lot of time thinking about innovation tend to view it as something that is good. After all, research shows that organisations that are more innovative are more profitable, have happier employees, grow faster, are more resilient, and have many other positive attributes.

So how can you not love innovation?

And yet, many people don’t love it. Especially managers.

James Gardner and Jeffrey Phillips have both written excellent posts recently about why this is so – you should give both of them a read.

Here is part of what Phillips says:

…innovation is fairly unpredictable. This is increasingly true as the amount of disruption possibility increases. Again, we have executives who have been taught to believe, and their compensation reinforces, that businesses are organizations which produce regular, steady outcomes in the face of any environmental uncertainty or economic chaos.

Kevin Kelly explains why the uncertainty level is so high with innovation in What Technology Wants (and you can see an earlier version of this argument here on his blog):

The advantages of new technology are always disruptive. The first version of an innovation is cumbersome and finicky. It is, to repeat Danny Hillis’s definition of technology, “stuff that does not work yet.” A new-fangled type of plow, waterwheel, saddle, lamp, phone, or automobile can offer only uncertain advantages in exchange for certain trouble. Even after an invention has been perfected elsewhere, when it is first introduced into a new zone or culture it requires the retraining of old habits…. The first version is almost always only marginally better than what it hopes to displace. That is why only a few eager pioneers are inclined to adopt an innovation at first, because the new primarily promises headaches and the unknown. As an innovation is perfected, its benefits and education are sorted out and illuminated, it becomes less uncertain, and the technology spreads. That diffusion is neither instantaneous nor even.

Here is the heart of the matter: new ideas “can offer only uncertain advantages in exchange for certain trouble.”

This is probably the biggest problem that needs to be overcome in order to become more innovative. And I’m not sure how to best address.

To innovate, we need to be more comfortable with uncertainty, and uncertainty avoidance seems to be pretty well hardwired into most people. Uncertainty reduction plays an important role in creating nearly every one of the ten tensions in innovation that I outlined previously.

Unfortunately, making people more comfortable with uncertainty is really hard. That’s why there is often a strong emphasis on tools and process when organisations try to improve innovation. Unfortunately, these solutions often just mask uncertainty.

Instead of ignoring uncertainty, we need to actually come to grips with it. Learning some complexity theory can help, and so can acknowledging the issue up front.

If anyone has any further ideas about how to best confront this problem, I’d love to hear them!

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

7 thoughts on “An Innovation Definition: Something That Does Not Work Yet

  1. Hi Tim, great post.

    With respect to confronting this problem: As well as understanding complexity, I’d recommend turning on the firehose!

    Unless you’re a start-up dependent on one idea making it or the whole company failing (saving a later reorientation) the best way to get comfortable with uncertainty is to create a portfolio of innovations so that the total risk is lower.

  2. Excellent suggestion Andrew! I do actually use that as one of my primary recommendations too. It’s still basically a patch, but it is one very good way to work around the problem.

  3. Methinks you’ve anchored yourself to a cognitive bias right from the start, which diminishes the value of such earth-shattering innovation and positions you to potentially stumble on your journey. :)

    If you believe “new ideas can offer only uncertain advantages in exchange for certain trouble,” you’re shooting yourself in the foot, sir. As Willy Wonka said, “Strike that. Reverse it.”

    Consider: New ideas can offer only uncertain trouble in exchange for certain advantages.

    I believe new ideas offer advantages. Plain and simple. They might not be broad, sweeping improvements to the status quo, and they may be so small as only an advantage in the form of additional experience in divergent ideation (a phrase you planted in my mind currently taking root, by the way), but they represent incremental improvement over time.

    Are we to stunt our growth to avoid the new challenges common to innovation? Should we not pursue every possible improvement for fear there might be challenges in doing so? I think that’s BS.

    Chance favors the prepared mind. Cultivated on a rich topsoil of trust, where risk is welcomed with open arms, innovation yields progress.

  4. Hi Tim
    Thanks for the interesting post, last year I heard John McGagh, Head of Innovation for Rio Tinto speak.

    He talked about how Rio manages this by acknowledging that they have two different part within their business one that is very process, risk adverse and certainty focused e.g. mining. And another part that is innovative and focused on new ways to survey sites, extract ore etc.

    When I think of other big business this kind of split seems common among them, even if they do not realise it. So is this about acknowledging the need for thier differences, and allowing the different sections to excel and better managing the transition of a well tested innovation into the main stream environment.

  5. Brian – I completely agree with your position. Your description is absolutely correct from the standpoint of idea generators – but I think that Kelly pretty accurately describes the point of view of idea receivers. And crossing that gulf is exactly the problem that I’m trying to grapple with here…

    Peter – I think you’re exactly right in saying that many big organisations deal with this by compartmentalizing. It doesn’t always work well, but it is definitely a common approach. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Ah-ha. I missed that bit. Makes sense.

    Still, I’m curious why the gulf between the generators and receivers exists in the first place. Seems to me that’s a recipe for entrepreneurship more than sustainable enterprise operations.

    Innovation means more than just coming up with fantastic new products and processes. In order to affect change within an organization, true innovation requires an understanding of internal client needs so as to ensure the benefits can be more clearly communicated.

    The CEO isn’t interested in how much more fun new hire training will be for Level I tech support. The CEO is, however, probably very interested how training improvements affects the bottom line in terms of reduced attrition, training hours, and as a contributing factor to customer service driving new sales.

    Not always easy for those of us who truly believe in ideas – this just *IS* better – to step back from the creative bonfire and chill. :)

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