Innovation, Now!

The continuing financial Tsunami has ceased to make waves. We ought to have seen it coming but were too scared to open our eyes. Like we’ve done in the past – all we’ve ever learnt to do is to solve problems based on ‘fitting historical patterns’ – we believe that we’re at the bottom of the economic downturn and things will look up from here on. Anybody noticed that the slide has been going on since September 11, 2001? And we’re satisfied waiting. The time for innovation is here and is urging us to do something – differently.

Talk to technology and business people and they will tell you that innovation is a tool. Therefore researching a need and then developing a solution to address it is called innovation. Then why call it innovation, why not keep calling it R&D? Are we simply using the word because it sounds nicer?

  1. Does anybody know what Innovation really means? I believe it is a way of thinking that embraces ‘all’ dimensions of a situation and tries to find the best interconnections. It (innovation) is simultaneously the way of thinking AND the process AND the domain AND the tools AND the methods coming together to CREATE a solution (change) FOR a situation (context) AT a certain point in time.
    My problem is with trying to define innovation so that it fits into some existing pattern. Therefore one way of understanding Innovation is to change the way we think. Edward de Bono’s book “Why so Stupid?” talks about how the human race never really learnt to think. So it is not so much a question of ‘thoughts’ but more a question of ‘thinking’ that can qualify to be an ingredient for innovation.
  2. Why do we continue to use Innovation interchangeably with invention, R&D, creativity and a few others? I often hear people say, “This or that is a great innovation”. I have a problem with understanding why an abstract term is being connoted as a ‘thing’. I suggest we go back to our Wren & Martins to study English grammar all over again. I don’t have a problem with invention since it is a tangible output, part of whose process of development may have been      innovative. But an Innovation?!
  3. Was Gandhi innovative? He didn’t ‘invent’ any products, unless we’d like to credit him with the charkha (spinning wheel). He did not try to incrementally solve problems that came his way. He had a purpose (objective), an unflinching belief to back that purpose (conviction), thought about consequences of his actions (impact), and then chose to do      something in a way that had never occurred to anybody else (disruption). Not his followers, not his fellow politicians, not the British Raj. His innovative ways ’surprised’ everybody, even himself! He did not research his ideas and ideologies (sometimes we keep doing this on end), he did not develop complicated plans for executing his ideas – he just thought differently. One man moved the powers that were, single-handedly (well, not really, but he did crank up the polity though) out of India.

So if we want to be sure about success in innovation, we must … there we go again. There is no sure way when it comes to Innovation. Let’s accept it!

In an interview with John Edson, President of Lunar Design, I was asked a question about whether innovation can be taught. In my view to teach innovation is easy. I think everybody can understand innovation intellectually but it becomes a different matter when that understanding has to be applied to a real situation. If all we needed was a set of rules, the legal profession would be the most innovative of all. Value through innovation requires a framework that allows for exploration, randomness and chaos. It also requires for individuals and groups to be comfortable trying out things without traditional business pressures.

Coming back to the global financial meltdown, there is an urgent need to find a way out. We need innovation and a different approach. If the financial whiz kids believed that building additional layers to hide the real problems was being innovative, the results are there for the world to see. My friend and innovation guru, Tom Koulopoulos succinctly observed,

“… the collective brainpower of the world’s economists, a handful of Nobel prize winners and the smartest of the smartest financial minds did little to keep us out of harm’s way. In fact they drove us into the midst of the storm. What’s clear now is that the danger of where we are and where we are going has much less to do with what we have learned about the past and so much more to do with what we don’t know about the future.”

He goes on to elucidate how the world came to this.

“…the smart folks who made a living covering their tracks by wrapping a small mess in an ever bigger more complex mess, and who convinced themselves and everyone else that complexity equalled value got very, very, very good at doing just that. The financial instruments that were being sold were simply impossible to understand. Wall Street had Nobel Physicists writing formulas to make the world appear not only utterly complex but through that complexity to convince us that there was some unknown law of the universe at play guaranteeing that they had the insight inaccessible to us simple minded mortals”.

See what happens when you try to give the colour of innovation to speculative profiteering. We need real innovation and we need it now!


4 Replies to “Innovation, Now!”

  1. A: Sure. We have increasingly been working with the economic development folks here—the Puget Sound Regional Council, the City of Seattle, the state Economic Development Commission—to identify global health as a sector in and of itself. Before, it was lumped in with life sciences, and while we certainly have elements of that, we’re much broader. So we’ve been calling out the global health sector as an economic driver of this state, something that the state can point to that sets us apart—like aerospace, like Microsoft. And this sector is different—it’s literally saving lives worldwide.


  2. I like many of your thoughts here Sunil. Well done. Coming from a background of using the scientific method for discovery, I especially resonate with these sentences

    “Value through innovation requires a framework that allows for exploration, randomness and chaos. It also requires for individuals and groups to be comfortable trying out things without traditional business pressures.”


    1. Thanks Marc. The problem with industrialized thinking is that efficiency is by all end all. A mechanistic worldview forces people to design for repeatability, which is anathema to innovation. Experiments have a way of going wrong … well at least half the time.


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