Last week, I attended Insight Into: Innovation, an event organised by Insight Recruitment that brought together 5 brilliant speakers in a very engaging format. Paul Wilshaw, David Nicoll, Catherine Trotter, Emma Collingridge and Amul Batra offered the audience great insight into their experience of innovation within the technology industry. I learned a few things, remembered quite a few others and was pleasantly surprised to find out about some of the innovation work that is going on in the local area.
I did notice, however, the absence of something: the precise, shared language indicative of a mature field of endeavour. It appears that we see Innovation as an art: something that can’t be fully understood or mastered. We conflate the innovations themselves with the process of innovation management and attribute to the latter properties of the former. Perhaps we think we mustn’t turn innovation into a science, lest we inadvertently take the soul out of it in the process.
Does it matter? I think it does. In practice, a lack of awareness even by master practitioners makes the spread of innovation management difficult. The talk last week was of a need for managers who get it, who believe. This seems to point to inadequate management, but it could just as well point to inadequate practitioners. The value of any business activity has to be quantifiable, and innovation is no different. Frameworks such as innovation accounting (from Lean Startup) help assign clear business value to the work of internal innovators. Those who choose not to use formal methods must be able to defend those choices in front of their bosses. But I am concerned that this group is small, and the real problem is those who are not aware of the existence of formal methods.
The field of Innovation Management is full of people who have got their position as a direct result of challenging convention and disrupting formal methods. The incentives have always been biased towards removal, not adoption, of formal approaches to getting work done. These boys and girls come from different backgrounds too, many of which are in fields who do not necessarily value the codification and generalisation of knowledge quite as much as engineering and science might. As a result, many of these people solve problems again and again, rather than finding a generic solution and applying it consistently. For instance, at one point in the talk we heard we should go and speak to customers, reminding ourselves that this will give us a biased, self-selecting group which won’t produce generally applicable insight but will produce value nonetheless. This is true, but has been well known since at least this 2012 article by Jakob Nielsen. How many times have facts like this been rediscovered, and how much collective effort has been wasted by using the flawed assumption that we’re the first ones to encounter a problem? Of the many tools, frameworks, concepts and methods in the arsenal of the Innovation manager, only one (separation of concerns) got a mention. This seems to me like a wasted opportunity.
Technology-driven innovation will help solve many of the world’s problems, from important ones like climate change and independent living in old age to trivial ones such as what to binge-watch next. The list is long and the process arduous and fraught with danger. The innovators of the world owe it to their sponsors and clients to give themselves the best chance to succeed. They must master the Science of Innovation.