Will Innovation Solve All Our Problems?

by Paul Hobcraft

Will Innovation Solve All Our Problems?I am getting increasingly disturbed. This week two people I know and respect have been talking about the innovation effect. Is innovation the business process re-engineering of our decade; is it part of a bubble like the the dot.com boom. Is innovation simply a fad and fashionable to talk up when we are in the present economic uncertainties? Is innovation durable or will executives move on to new ‘feeding grounds’ as they smell that possible wind of change? Yes, possibly, I hope not. Innovation is still a very fertile feeding ground.

Innovation is meant to be the catalyst of fresh jobs, new growth and leading us all out to the promise land of wealth and security. Can we place such a burden on the slim shoulders of innovation?

Politicians here in Europe and America are using the past tool kit of tried and tested methods to kick start their economies, restructure the mountains of debt we have accumulated and generally stimulate growth. Our economies remains stuck, entrenched and resistant, even some are about to possibly plunge even further back. So it becomes “time for playing the innovation card”.

Is innovation leading us to the promised land of milk and honey?

I think we are all getting a little cynical about leaders’ motives and intentions when leaders attempt to deliver inspiring messages, many people react with skepticism, question whether leaders are just trying to work them or us even harder. It often leaves a bitter taste, not a taste of future promise.

Work for many has changed in its central position. It has moved from having a higher meaning and purpose as it is increasingly felt as individuals we are not really making a difference. Ah but through innovation you can, goes the mantra.

The problems today are very structural and systemic. We are all being measured against past performance, against other people, against other organizations, against other countries, the messages are unrelenting. Our solution is to become more innovative. Often these are one shot solutions. Do they advance us, most probably not much but we need to be measured. Do all these one shot activities help us or are they simply short term?

We have also lost identification with our public leaders and our institutions. We increasingly see them as obstacles to progress; we see them as not very innovative.

Overload and the crisis of no time to focus

Today we are bombarded with information, with knowledge, with data 24 hours of constant streaming if we want it. We have difficulty in switching off. We constantly look for all those breaking innovation and wealth creating opportunities. Regretfully we are on a horrible treadmill and asking innovation to help us get off it is not a solution. It helps, yes possibly.

Steve Denning wrote a series of articles on his Forbes blog, start here to read about the sorry state of innovation. It is depressing reading. It does seem innovation is not succeeding. Can we change this, he thinks it is, yes possible but we have to radically change our thinking about innovation and its part to play in the bigger scheme of things.

The EU announces a state of innovation emergency

This week the European commission issued its Innovation Union Competitive Report, it is long, detailed but thankfully has an executive summary. Start here. The upshot of the report, the headline is “Europe’s innovation emergency”. Innovation performance needs major improvements in many areas if (note if) the Europe 2020 strategy is to deliver on its promises. I don’t want to sound cynical but I just get the feeling of “no chance” will we deliver on the promises with where we are and what is facing us.

  • Innovation delivery is tied to Innovation Union and as most people know Europe loves the idea of union. The problem today is there are many worrying signs that the dream of EU ‘Union’ is about to implode with the public financial crisis, that is not going away with the heavy dose of austerity measures needed by most. Excuse me, but how does innovation flourish in austere times, usually not very well actually. So innovation is becoming the whipping boy. Yes probably.
  • The EU report suggests we need to be more innovation ‘smarter’ by focusing on specialized areas of activity. The difficulty for me is many of these offer limited jobs and simply chase the ‘smarter’ qualified person. So we get some wealth creation but for a narrow band of (lucky) people and have we not just been through one of those bailouts for the banking sector? So more of the same solution as policy suggestions for innovation. Yes probably.
  • We are asked to invest more in research and innovation. The EU is slowly advancing towards a target of 3% of GDP to invest in research and development. The problem I have with this is this: there are so many reports disputing this R&D focus is the real growth area, it should be in entrepreneurial start ups. I tend to feel this seems to generate more jobs but start ups are having extremely hard time raising money from the financial institutions. We have not yet achieved a structural change to a more knowledge-intensive economy.
  • We are also told we have weak framework conditions that are preventing our knowledge to flow and be transformed into marketable products and services. The developed world is most likely continuing to lose ground in the exploitation and translation of innovation.
  • Many commentators have spoken of a new deal, to get the many back to work. This is based on knowledge and being innovative. The reality is our education system; many within our work forces are not as equipped as they need to be to make this knowledge intensive switch. We will have to wait for significant changes in our education direction, significant upgrading and retraining of many knowledge unskilled people to make this critical change. Yes probably.

Innovation can be the growth stimulus, not our current tired formulas of financial bailouts as the approach.We need stimulus not propping up the weak.

Is innovation our stimulus? Innovation remains often abstract, certainly over used, and not well understood by most people on its full force and ability to deliver but can it, when it often stands on its own and everything is expected from it?

Innovation is expensive to do well. It is now global and access to knowledge is essential; Innovation can also be very slow and incremental but it can be disruptive, revolutionary and amazingly quick in generating growth and jobs. Innovation is a community endeavor, it dies in silo’s and we need to increasingly find ways to wire and connect ourselves even more to leverage the collaborative nature innovation requires.

Innovation requires resurgence and deep commitment

If innovation can be our answer then it needs a clear resurgence. Innovation needs a place at the top table of politicians, businesses and society and not just used as the star attraction, called upon to divert our attention from all the issues that are around us. Innovation can lead us out of this mess but it has to be ‘front and center’ in its importance but it has to be fully understood. Is it by many at this time abstract and lacking the defining meaning of why innovation should be treated with importance?

Innovation to become part of real sustaining policy needs to be re-thought. Innovation by its nature needs to be nurtured by the process of discovery, the linking of insights for creation and exploitation of new ideas by entrepreneurs and business alike and translating them into a new end result.

Innovation is uncertain, lets simply recognize that and move on

Innovation is by nature radically uncertain, it is very unpredictable, although Governments believe they can capture innovation activity but they don’t. We need to encourage experimentation and ideas even more; luckily we still have our creativity even if we don’t have access to the means to deliver on it. This is where we should be spending our money, not in bailout of old institutions or 20th century industry models but on experimentation and exploration of the new work factory, collaborative innovation sharing, to solve our societies and planets big issues with inventions that generate a new deal that transform us away from current dependencies the planet is rapidly depleting.

A new melting pot of delicious innovation stew

We need to find a new ‘melting pot’ where innovation forms the central ingredient but it really does need plenty of other components or constituents to be readily mixed together to produce this elixir of new jobs, growth and wealth creation, it can’t simply stand alone. It needs to change from the whipping boy to the poster boy but it needs a sea change in our thinking or it does go bust and fail to deliver on all those promises being made today.

Innovation needs attachment

So is innovation dead, is it about to go bust, to end up as another nice idea? I hope not, it is durable but in a different form than we currently frame it in. It is time we put innovation really to work but it has to be ‘attached’ to something specific to thrive and grow upon. It can have durability if we understand it better and invest in it. It needs to be fixed firmly onto something else. We do need to do this mind shift in innovation understanding now though, we just can’t simply keep talking about it as the ‘magic’ dust you sprinkle around.

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.

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  1. Dear Paul,

    I enjoyed your post very much “Will innovation solve all our problems?”.

    As an innovation consultant I am constantly facing the skepticism from companies, their high hopes in innovation and in many cases their not so positive past experiences with it.

    Something that has helped me throughout the years is to establish a few work pillars, I hope you do not mind if I share them with you.

    These are:

    1-Great solutions come from companies (rather than one expert)
    Facilitate a process and empower teams to innovate. The responsibility and ownership of the process and solutions needs to come from the companies in order to increase success.

    2-Accurate diagnosis
    Spend time in defining the problem. Companies tend to believe that a new product is the holy grail of innovation.
    In my view the product is only part of the solution as I stated in my blog post: http://thought-refinery.tumblr.com/.
    Companies (brands) need to think of their presence from an offline (product, packaging, experience etc) and online (web, social media) dimensions in order to be innovative and moreover to achieve high competitiveness.

    3-Excellent quality input for great solutions
    Thorough market research for innovation is crucial for generating great ideas. Without understanding societal needs, culture and change, the role of technology and contextual needs of consumers, the quality of the ideas and solutions is poor.
    Uninspiring research, uninteresting products!

    4- Workshop to spark new directions
    Embracing the information and getting people excited should be mandatory.
    Great communication formats and simple innovation tools are required to support companies to empathize with consumers needs, define new markets/opportunities directions and transfer it to their company.

    Some additional magic definitely comes from involving designers. They turn ideas into brand (product, experience etc) propositions.

    5- Defining teams and tasks for realizing ideas.
    In my view, changing companies’ structure to be more innovative is complicated, yet to accommodate teams by defining tasks and briefs to outsource activities to realize innovation seems a more feasible plan.

    Looking forward to your thoughts.



  2. Laura, thanks for your thoughts- much appreciated. We can discuss and discuss the merits of much you offer and extend that even further. Two comments I’d make back
    To your point 1- emerging solutions come only from the persons involved experiencing it for themselves, consultants can never substitute. Ownership transfer can come from one expert, providing ‘multiple’ consultants to do the work, limits this transfer. Innovation for me needs to be far more personal, face-to-face and tailored but provided in a mentoring, coaching, advising capacity, the client needs to do the ‘physical’ work.
    2. You reflect on having the accurate diagnosis- you are so right, I’m with you all the way on this, regretfully this investment time is never readily accepted by the client as a necessary investment, not valued in its potential for expanding the dimensions of possibility and so often, the consulting company misses so many softer’ but more relevant factors due to the understandbly ‘impatience’ of the client. I wish diagnosis was valued more for this really is the place where the ‘hidden’ solution often lies.

    Thanks for your thoughts

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