Belly Button Theory of Innovation

by Saul Kaplan

Belly Button Theory of InnovationUnleashing the power of innovation to solve the big social challenges of our time including health care, education, and energy is as simple and plain as our belly buttons. In the spirit of navel gazing I think a lot about how to simplify the innovation narrative, make it more inclusive, and become more experimental. I offer a belly button theory of innovation and its three constructs: one belly button at a time, from innies to outies, and beyond navel gazing.

One Belly Button at a Time

For starters we need a shared definition for innovation. Our rhetoric is all over the place and innovation has become a buzzword. Everything is an innovation and everyone is an innovator and of course when that happens nothing and no one is. We conflate invention with innovation. They are not the same. A simple definition: Innovation is a better way to deliver value. It is not an innovation until value is delivered one belly button at a time. Often we don’t have to invent anything new to deliver value or solve a problem. We have to get better at reconfiguring and recombining existing capabilities and technologies in order to deliver value. We have more technology available to us than we know how to absorb or deploy. It is not technology that gets in the way of innovation it is stubborn humans and organizations that resist change.
I am amazed at the number of innovation discussions including leaders from across institutions and sectors where the voice of the end user is completely missing. Customer experience must be at the heart of any innovation and design process. Solutions are not about institutions they are about patients, students, citizens, and customers. Enhancing customer experiences requires a passion and focus on delivering value one belly button at a time.

From Innies to Outies

Far too much attention and resource is focused on the inputs versus the outputs of innovation. There are more ideas and new technologies than we could ever use or implement. There are too many inventions stuck in the garage or lab and concepts stuck on the whiteboard. We need to get more ideas and solutions off of the white board and in to the real world. The imperative is more real world experimentation. We need to try more stuff to see what works and is scalable. If you are like me it drives you crazy when you are stuck in traffic when congestion information is knowable, when one branch of government has no idea about your interaction with the department right next door, and when one part of the health care system can’t seem to share information or collaborate with any other part. Don’t get me started on education. It just makes me cry.

We have the inputs for innovation at our disposal. Our focus needs to shift to the outputs. It isn’t an innovation until value is delivered. Innovation should be measured based on outcomes. Are there proof points that the solution works in the real world and at scale? We need to invest more in platforms and tools to enable new model and system experiments. We need to invest in and organize safe zones where we can try new approaches in the real world designed around the end user.

It is not surprising that we are in love with inputs. We are a society of innies. We have bought in to the invention narrative and haven’t been successful at replacing it with a compelling innovation story. Inputs are not as dependent on messy collaboration across silos and organizations as outputs. Inputs are easier to measure than outputs. Most importantly most of us are wired to focus on inputs and uncomfortable being held accountable for outcomes. Just like belly buttons. 90% have innies and only 10% have outies. It is time to celebrate the outies.

Beyond Navel Gazing

Making progress on the important social challenges of our time require us to move beyond a strong tendency for navel gazing. Excessive introspection, self-absorption, and single-issue concentration will not enable system level solutions. We need to look up from our silos and to collaborate with unusual suspects across organizations, disciplines, and sectors. System level challenges like health care, education, and energy require system level experimentation and innovation. We have to make collaboration more of a natural act. It will only happen if we lean against the human tendency to hunker down in our silos and move beyond comfortable solutions that are within our sphere of influence and control.

The imperative is to enable collaborative innovation. We can design and scale new systems that take advantage of 21st century technology if we move beyond our normal tendency for naval gazing.

We are fortunate to live in an exciting time where big things are possible. It is the innovator’s day. We don’t have to invent anything new. Unleashing the power of innovation is as simple and plain as our belly buttons.

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Saul KaplanSaul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.