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By David Slocum
“What’s the opposite of innovation?,” the joke begins. A tart punchline quickly follows: “Innovation consultants.”
Since I teach, coach and sometimes consult on innovation and creative leadership, that cynical joke gives me pause. Consultants of all kinds are easy marks, of course, whether they are from well-known global firms or one-person shops. But it is innovation, as an idea and, increasingly, the basis of a cottage industry for consulting, advising, coaching and even counseling, that is the real target here.
Isn’t innovation good, though?, we ask. Doesn’t thinking, designing, building and leading for innovation enable firms of all kinds to create and capture value? Doesn’t imaginative collaboration, teaming, and organizing lead to breakthroughs that can transform businesses, industries and even markets? Doesn’t innovation ultimately benefit individuals by encouraging and nurturing self-awareness, empathy, courage, and growth – human values that help contribute to personal fulfillment?
All true. Yet that very sweep and sprawl of meanings is part of the problem. Innovation is everywhere, from mission and vision statements to strategic positioning and brand marketing to team charters and individual performance goals. Likewise, creativity, often in adjectival form, has become a necessary qualifier for nearly all aspects of management and operations: leadership, strategy, talent management, organizational design, customer or client relationships, collaboration, and teamwork. Even creative accounting has become a worthy aspiration (just not “too” creative…).
The expanded usage, to be sure, reflects some far-reaching and very real economic and historical shifts that have recently foregrounded aspects of creativity and innovation for individuals, firms and larger economies. I often assert that “creativity is the new normal” to underscore the unprecedented opportunities, even necessities facing businesses in a world where technology is transforming old and new industries alike. My question here is whether the words themselves, asked to say so much in their varied and continual usage, increasingly end up saying little or nothing at all.
There is no shortage of models, frameworks and typologies attempting to break out and define more precise and different meanings. Classic distinctions of “innovation,” many well-drawn by some of our most astute observers and analysts of business and management, tend to delve deeply into specific areas. We might think here of Clay Christensen on disruptive innovation, Gary Hamel on management innovation, and Vijay Govindarajan on reverse innovation. And so many other qualifiers of the word have become commonplace: incremental, radical, architectural, modular, technological, knowledge, product, process and so on. Much more typically, though, both “innovation” and “creativity” are used generically by firms themselves, consultancies, the popular and business press, the blogosphere, and even some academic research to burnish a diverse but finally vague range of insights, tools and management practices.
Interview of Eric Schmidt by Gary Hamel at the MLab dinner . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Having an excess of overlapping and alternative tools and models is fine, of course, for leaders on the ground who use them to gain greater insights around or address specific situations. That assumes, however, a thorough familiarity with these different innovative approaches and how (or, more fundamentally, if) to apply them usefully to those specific situations. Here we might return to the question of innovation consultants. What is the precise form of expertise they offer? Launching start-ups based on original ideas, developing new products or services for established firms, redesigning work processes, nurturing creative people or cultures, re-drawing business models? Maybe all of those. Or maybe none. The challenge is finding the right fit of specific capabilities and experience from the growing constellation of offerings made using the same terms.
How did our usage of “innovation” and “creativity” spiral out of control? From recent history, we might start looking in the 1980s-1990s. The redefinition of creative work, industries and economies, began then in the UK and was furthered elsewhere by analysts like Richard Florida, who repositioned creativity as a driving force in the (re-)development of cities, societies and economies. More generally at the same time, though hearkening back to the early 20th century writings of Joseph Schumpeter, a doctrine of “innovation economics” emerged in the work of a diverse group of theorists and analysts to argue that knowledge, innovation and entrepreneurship are not outliers but essential to economic growth and productivity.
Richard Florida, an American urban studies theorist, speaking at the third plenary at the 2006 Out & Equal Workplace Summit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Yet probably nothing has had as great an impact as the profound developments that have occurred in Silicon Valley (and the larger technology economy to which it has been central). Combining mythology of individual ingenuity, a culture of business entrepreneurship, and a demonstrated potential for world-changing invention, Silicon Valley has become a vital source for popular and corporate imagination about creativity and innovation. Even as the technologies produced there have transformed lives, societies and economies around the world, the thinking and language of openness, risk-taking, start-ups and innovation has spread as well.
Amid the concern that tech firms are in the middle of another financial bubble, with unjustifiably high market valuations potentially ready to burst, I see another Silicon Valley bubble in play. It involves the inflation of certain ways of thinking and talking about innovation from tech firms. This language bubble, or what we might otherwise see as an internally-referencing echo chamber, grows through a continuing series of blogposts, websites, magazine articles, and books that largely re-package the same practices, policies and behaviors as being conducive to innovation and creativity.
What would Google do?, we ask. A loose grouping of ideas and beliefs and leading practices have come increasingly to represent current thinking about how all organizations, regardless of industry or market, can best cultivate innovative and creative work. Much of this is enormously positive, both fulfilling for people and productive for organizations. In the process, the larger popular and practical discourse around Silicon Valley-style innovation has grown and grown. One consequence is what Bill O’Connor, of Autodesk, calls “innovation pornography,” in which too many people become voyeurs, rapturously watching others innovate without doing so themselves. Another is the myth that creativity and original thinking can solve any problem or develop an idea the world will eventually embrace.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While I do believe fully in that problem-solving and even world-changing potential, my point is that the generic superpower of creativity or innovation will not be the force to do so. Rather, it is by understanding how creativity and innovation, even with all their inherent messiness, disorder, and indirectness, need specific situations and contexts in order to flourish and effect meaningful change. Innovation and creativity, writ large, are not strategic silver bullets.