Have We Reached Peak Innovation?
As noted historian Yuval Harari argues in his bestselling book, Sapiens, innovation has been one of the driving forces in human evolution for millennia.
Consider fire, for example. Early humans were what Yuval terms an “animal of no significance” until they started using fire for warmth, protection and cooking. Later, when humans started settling in to agricultural societies, crude forms of writing appeared – primarily for accounting.
This raises a distinction between innovation and invention: humans didn’t invent fire, the application of it was the innovation. They didn’t invent the clay for the tablets they wrote on but they did invent writing.
Millennia later, renowned education thought leader and speaker Sir Ken Robinson echoes this concept in his views on the human creative process.
“It’s important to me because I think it’s what sets us apart from the rest of the life on earth and very little does,” Robinson says. “But clearly something does and other creatures with whom we share most of our existence and our characteristics may sing but they don’t compose operas.”
Clearly, modern humans have a much greater volume of “clay” at their disposal and contend with a commercial environment vastly more sophisticated than that of their early ancestors. However, the chief executive of technology commercialisation consultancy Terem Technologies, Scott Middleton, offers a succinct definition of the relationship between invention and innovation. He suggests the basic concepts underlying them for modern businesses remain the same.
“For me invention is the creation of something new,” Middleton says. “It could be something that’s digital or Telstra IN_SIGHT – Innovation Overdrive – Telstra Business & Enterprise – IN_SIGHT something like a medical device or drug. Innovation is the process of taking that to market to create value that wasn’t there before.”
Innovation doesn’t always have to be about invention, it can be about process change, new business models or the application of something that exists to a new area.
Jeff Boslem, regional manager for collaboration, Cisco Australia and New Zealand, expresses similar sentiments when he talks about his own business line.
“Innovation is a bit like collaboration,” Boslem says. “It can mean a variety of things to many people, but they all share close linkages.”
“Reducing cost and improving efficiency can only do so much, businesses need to create new sources of value with innovation. Improving collaboration to connect your people faster ensures you are more agile, which accelerates the development of ideas that lead to innovations.”
“Innovation is a bit like collaboration. It can mean a variety of things to many people, but they all share close linkages.”
-Jeff Boslem, regional manager for collaboration, Cisco Australia and New Zealand
Middleton says that while the word innovation may be overused, every company still needs to think about creating new value in these simple terms. The challenge, he says, is that most companies are inherently geared to resist innovation and reinforce a system that works.
However, for companies to really make a difference and develop “disruptive value” they need to be seriously committed, Middleton says. He points out that Amazon.com spends about 10% of revenue on research and development, which is $13.3bn US per year in real terms.
Generally, the companies that are better at creating this value take time to carve out a creative process for their employees that allows them to refine their ideas rapidly and constantly. Middleton describes this as an iterative and ongoing process.
Middleton points to the example of comedian Jerry Seinfeld who is reputedly committed to writing new material every day. Perhaps not every joke will work but Seinfeld is still more likely to generate a body of new material from which to profit.
Similarly, Middleton says, innovators could find creative, new ways to extract value from their business simply by writing down 10 new ideas every day. An approach that he says is akin to those companies that innovate most effectively because they are more concerned about the pace at which they generate ideas than their quality.
- The most innovative companies carve out a creative process for their employees that allows them to refine their ideas rapidly.
- Innovation is an iterative and ongoing process that means different things to different people.
- Innovators could find creative ways to extract value from their business simply by writing down 10 new ideas every day.