Innovation Must Be Managed

Failed plan

Someone recently tweeted this about innovation:

Perhaps some confusion about “innovation”: if it can be predictably produced/managed, is it truly innovative?

I hear this a lot. And it’s always wrong.

This kind of statement is based on the correct idea that we can’t know in advance if a truly innovative idea will work or not.  Even small things don’t always go according to plan, as my cats proved a couple of years ago:

Failed plan

Rather than an argument against process, this uncertainty is exactly why innovation MUST be managed – it’s the only way to improve our chances to succeed.

Here is why. As Steven Johnson said: “Chance favors the connected mind.

He says  that Good ideas are more likely to result from slow hunches. Johnson says that even when an idea seems to come to us in a flash of inspiration, it usually actually has a longer history behind it. He uses the example of Darwin, who in his autobiography says that the idea for natural selection came to him in a flash one day while he was reading Malthus. However, recent research based on his notebooks shows that the theory had been developing for months prior to that.

And as Louis Pasteur more famously said – “Chance favors the prepared mind.

Scott Berkun wrote a great post about this recently. If you have limited time, go read that post instead of the rest of this one. Berkun says:

A common pattern of the Myth of Epiphany is creativity by accident. The very idea of the Muse, forces that choose to grant ideas to us from above, externalizes creativity, and accidents have similar appeal. Since we’re all often victims of accidents, we’re compelled by stories that redeem accidents into breakthroughs.

To be more helpful, work is the essential element in all finished creative projects and inventions. No matter how brilliant the idea, or miraculous its discovery, work will be required to develop it to the point of consumption by the rest of the world. And it’s effort, even if in pursuit of pleasure, that  provides the opportunity for serendipity to happen.

Finally, Marc Andreesen talks about synthesis as one of the key elements of capitalising on luck:

  • How flexible and aggressive are we at synthesizing — at linking together multiple, disparate, apparently unrelated experiences on the fly? I think this is a hard skill to consciously improve, but I think it is good to start most creative exercises with the idea that the solution may come from any of our past experiences or knowledge, as opposed to out of a textbook or the mouth of an expert. (And, if you are a manager and you have someone who is particularly good at synthesis, promote her as fast as you possibly can.)

The point here is that creative ideas, ones that are genuinely novel, are the result of hard work. More importantly, the turn them in to something real requires more hard work. This is true both for individuals and for organisations.

This is why time is such an important element in innovation. Innovation doesn’t occurs in a flash of inspiration. Innovation occurs as a combination of insight plus work. And even then it is only innovative if the executed idea creates value for people. We have to do work worth doing.

To innovate we have to court uncertainty. We need innovation management because hard work plus serving people reduce this uncertainty. Doing this across a number of ideas at once increases our chance of success as well.

We can build skills like curiousity and synthesising that will make us better innovators. Luck, uncertainty, and serendipity are important parts of innovation. Thinking about innovation systematically will make it easier for us to take advantage of 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.