Innovation: where should we focus?

| March 18, 2016

Innovation is not about technology, it’s about people. Stay focussed on the objective of what you want to achieve, not the tools needed to achieve it, writes Dr Melis Senova. 

I searched for the word innovation on Google and noticed its steady increase in popularity since the early 1900s. We haven’t plateaued yet.

There are a few things I notice about the debate of the whys and hows of innovation I wanted to share with you. Of course, my perspective is beautifully tarnished and tainted with the brush of humanity, not technology. And perhaps for this reason, is a useful contribution.

My comments are more relevant to innovation within large organisations and government, rather than the start-up sector, and are concerned with what we choose to focus on and hence how we make decisions that direct innovation effort.

Focussing on the tech

In business, we tend to be more comfortable talking about and working with tangible topics. Technology is a tangible aspect of innovation, the obvious enabler and so this is what draws our attention and focus. In the current era, technology is an important and relevant aspect that of course we need to pay attention to.

However, we need to pay more attention to the context within which this innovation is happening (culture) and the context within which it will be actualised (people).

Focussing on the tangible aspects of innovation draws our attention away from the valuable intangible aspects, such as the cultures we need to establish to allow creative innovation to flourish. And equally as important, what/who is this innovation effort in service of, other than the creators?

Focussing on activities not outcomes

The other tangible aspects of technology are methods, processes, tools, and frameworks. Our focus on these things narrows our attention to activities that need to happen in a certain time and way to achieve a goal. These goals soon become in service of the innovation project itself (to build the widget), which is often divorced from the outcome (or higher purpose) for the innovation.

The real outcome is normally for the innovation (be it product or service) to have some type of impact in the world.

That impact is inevitably facilitated by people.

In large organisations, we often lose sight of why we are innovating in the first place, and need to work to recreate ways to connect back with this, which is often connecting back with the human context of the innovation, rather than the technology or business context.

For an example of the difference between outcome versus activity conversations, read my previous blog on this topic: From activity to outcome: changing our everyday focus.

Forgetting why we’re doing it

If we can’t explain why we are bothering to innovate in the first place, then we know that it is for the sake of the business or the technology. An answer to the question, “why are we innovating?” that sounds like “because we want to disrupt the banking sector” is not a good enough reason. Disruption is a by-product of meaningful innovation that addresses a human context. Understanding why you’re innovating in these terms ensures the trajectory of decision making is meaningful, and ultimately successful.

When I use the term meaningful, I don’t necessarily mean for the greater good of humanity (although of course, I prefer those types of outcomes). What I’m talking about is that what we are innovating is relevant, important and impactful. And that achieving these dimensions is not necessarily accidental.

Thinking innovation is a process

If we think of innovation as a process, we are only focussing on part of the story. Instead of trying to write this out in a paragraph, I’ve drawn a two by two for your information (and enjoyment). Take out: it is somewhat easier to build capability of a process that encourages innovation. If the culture, environment and ways of working that nurture these activities is not also deliberately created, the innovation spark will fade with time.

Having outdated values that direct innovation

Now this is a big one, and perhaps deserves its own blog. The values that have directed activity within business has primarily been profit making and growth. These values are becoming outdated very quickly.

The purpose of innovation is to ensure that we change the shared reality to one that improves conditions on Earth, to create value for all. I am aware that my perspective of what ‘improves conditions on Earth’ is going to be different to the next person. However, I think we can agree on the need to extend our value sets in business to include dimensions other than money, environment and society. If we do a good job of holding these three value dimensions close to our hearts and present in our minds as we make decisions that direct the innovation effort, that is wonderful. There are also other dimensions that are important that contribute to our wellbeing: creativity, time freedom, and intellectual contribution are examples of these.

Whatever it is we are innovating, for whatever reason, we need to be firmly connected to the outcome we are intending with this effort. We also need to ensure this outcome is not for the betterment of ourselves, those doing the innovating, but for the people we are innovating for.

And, the purpose of innovation is not to disrupt.

The purpose of innovation is to positively affect life on this planet.