Innovation is such a beautiful thing. Sadly, it is often overrated, over-utilised, over-buzzified, and curiously also overlooked. Without a doubt, innovation has made a lot of headlines in the past few years. It has emerged as the word associated with the digital revolution and economy 4.0. It’s the word spoken in every business meeting around the world dozens of times per minute, billion of times per day, trillion of times per year.
“Innovation is our response to the market challenges, it’s the way we’ll overcome our competitors and create new revenue streams.”
You’ve heard something similar to this before and I bet you’ve seen it many times in press releases or internal communications. Is innovation the way? – no, innovation isn’t the way, and it shouldn’t be. Innovation is not the how, neither the what nor the why. Innovation is just a particularity of a solution, it is a parameter in the whole equation of creating new business and surviving in the new Universe. Just invoking the God of Innovation doesn’t solve the problem.
Innovation can be iterative or disruptive. It has enablers, like technology, or a new context, like COVID-19. But most likely, and very often, innovation is simple but delightful – it is like the candy you find on the pillow in the hotel room.
When speaking about innovation, we tend to think about technology – IoT, AI, even mobile apps. I wrote an article a while ago about how we’d recognize the next big thing in tech, concluding that the next big thing won’t be technology in of itself.
“Most probably, the next big thing in tech might not be very related to technology → its main component wouldn’t be the tech part. Its main value will be about integrating experiences.”
In other words:
- Technology is being commoditized
- Technology is not (pure) innovation anymore
- Technology is shifting from why a product is built to how a product is built
This shift is the sole consequence of technology’s success and penetration. The inherent meaning of technological innovation is now about the value it brings in people’s lives, rather than the wow factor of, let’s say, an autonomous car.
Nowadays, the utilitarian value of technology is much bigger than its emotional value. Innovation is more about the problem we solve than the solution we build.
So, we have concluded that innovation is not technology. What is it then?
What is Innovation?
Innovation can’t be defined, it can be only observed. Innovation is like creativity, or like soul. Or like both. And like creativity and soul, innovation can’t be isolated, can’t be created in a lab by scientists. It doesn’t have a secret formula, you can’t bring into an organization 12 pounds of user centricity and 32 feet of agility and be sure the innovation will occur. If so, you’ll end up pursuing the philosopher’s stone, like alchemists did.
To brew innovation you need some key ingredients*:
- A passionate team
- Resources – knowledge, money, and leadership
- Commitment and resilience
(*) the presence of the mentioned ingredients doesn’t guarantee a successful process – you may need some magical ingredients like culture, or its organizational root, a visionary leader…
When thinking about the many things humans have invented, I have found the greatest innovations and inventions have spawned from conflicts, such as blood banks, stainless steel, zippers, canned food, the radar, the Internet, satellites, the first man on the Moon, and GPS. Why are so many great things created out of suffering? Because, during hard times, society removes the barriers for problem solvers and mobilizes the resources, commitment and resilience around them.
Innovation is the successful commercialization of creativity. So, it isn’t only about restless people that have the knowledge, creativity and resources to build new things or solutions, it’s also about the demand, the market. And here is another point where a wartime mentality fuels innovation: there is a huge demand for solutions that can bring victory.
William Brody, a great scientist and President of The Johns Hopkins University once said “The calculus of innovation is really quite simple: knowledge drives innovation, innovation drives productivity, productivity drives economic growth.”
This is the calculus, but to do the calculus you need the values, the parameters and the operators. So you need to experiment and identify the knowledge inside of your organization, the key people, the existing systems and how everything is linked to market opportunity. This is not easy.
ISO-56002: Innovation Management Systems
When I started ISO-56002, Innovation Management Systems training, I was quite skeptical about how an ISO standard and the innovation can sit together. Innovation can’t be standardized, I said.
Yes, that’s fundamentally true, it can’t. At its core, innovation is creativity and creativity is chaos. But what an ISO standard can do is to create the conditions to innovate. Even the military is highly standardized, but yet they manage to be highly innovative during times of conflict.
What ISO-56002 does is to set the ground for innovation to emerge. It defines a framework, an Innovation Management System.
Large corporations can fuel innovation by implementing the best practices outlined by ISO-56002. This brings a common understanding of the terminology, commitment, and helps in identifying and managing knowledge, monitoring processes, allocating resources, and deploying solutions. ISO-56002 doesn’t define how innovation should be created, it defines what we need to keep the process smooth and well understood by all the actors.
As with wars, ISO-56002 isn’t a condition for innovation to occur. Innovation might happen all the time, in some unexpected places, in peace times, or even in garages. But what ISO-56002 does is to remove some barriers and creates a sense of common effort, a framework, and a system of thinking.
Speaking in Mr. Brody’s terms, it brings the tools you need to identify the parameters and the operators needed for the calculus, and not the formula. I’d complete his quote with system management drives knowledge before saying knowledge drives innovation.
As a Romanian, I was in the situation to reinvent myself, starting with the brutal change we went through 30 years ago from despotic communism to completely unregulated capitalism. This perspective helps me to see that evolution comes in many forms. Innovation and change is not only about business, it is about society, individuals and the way we perceive the outer world.
Innovation is like life, a beautiful and incomprehensible mix between luck and determinism, randomness and rules, chaos and standardization. It’s a two sided coin, and that’s OK. All we need is to read both sides and, if possible, to follow the coin when it flips.