The Word Innovation

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The word innovation makes me think of new stuff, physical things that were not around before, like Graphene, Segways or the jet engine, but I know I’m missing something. I probably need to consider Graphene as a discovery, not really an innovation – making it into a flexible skin for a car would be an innovation. And maybe the jet engine was what we would call an invention, and the jet aeroplane would qualify as its innovative application.

On the other hand, I have missed intangible innovations. The World Wide Web must surely qualify, and that is certainly intangible, and then what about new ways of doing things, are they innovations? Of course they are.

The Fosbury Flop was a new way of getting over a high jump bar, and just in time delivery was an innovation to reduce stock and improve cash flow. We can call these behavioural innovations.

So now I can see two areas of innovation. Technological things, both physical and virtual, like carbon fibre bike frames or systems like the internet, and organisational ones like Kaizen (continuous improvement) or just in time delivery.

In business, as well as training people to be more effective, we change the way we do things simply to embrace new technology. Do we innovate to exploit newly available systems, or do they exploit us?

I suspect that sometimes we do things simply because we can, rather than because we have figured out what is needed to make a positive difference.

And because of that, sometimes a business innovation can have unanticipated consequences which work against the big picture.

In the wider world we can easily find examples we all recognise. The mobile phone, for all its benefits, reduces pedestrians to sentient traffic cones in the street. They create annoyance in the railway carriage, and near violence when they ring in the theatre auditorium. The supermarket, which was a retail innovation which revolutionised shopping habits over a 50-year span, much like online shopping is doing now, has hollowed out town centres and created traffic problems that legislation is now trying to reverse.

“The mobile phone, for all its benefits, reduces pedestrians to sentient traffic cones in the street”

In the workplace we have created new ways of doing things too. These new behaviours have every right to be called innovations, and they ride on the back of technology, and this technology is frequently the internet or one of its spin-offs. Being always on and infinitely connected provides amazing potential, but we can use this potential without always thinking about its value.

Teleconferencing allows teams from different countries and time zones to collaborate, but when that means long calls inevitably at unsocial hours with the reduced bandwidth of even the best electronic connection, you can wonder why you didn’t find people nearby to work with, that you know and trust. Personal contact is hard to beat.

Email is everyone’s blessing, and is the standard channel for business communication everywhere. Ten years ago, when I asked an IT department for their biggest single workplace problem, I expected them to complain about the noise disruption they were certainly subjected to. We ran two workshops which came up with the same unexpected issue: excessive emails, or ‘email blizzards’, as they called it. ‘Sort that!’ they begged, and they would double their productivity, and be much happier into the bargain. ‘Forget the noisy neighbours, we’ve got headphones’.

Flexible working, that well-worn catchphrase, basically means the ability to work anywhere and any place. A common outcome is a radical reduction in the number of workstations, and a plethora of other settings mainly for collaboration. This is certainly regarded as an organisational innovation, and is fine if it works, but it is not unheard of for this to offend people’s idea of what their office should be. If you make people feel unwanted or not valued you run a risk of losing more than you gain in cost reduction.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to. If you can reduce your real estate by 10% and exploit Wi-Fi so people can give up their desks, assess the change in productivity before you do it. If it is negative, think again. Most times the plus side cannot be easily estimated, so it loses out to the demonstrable fact of cash saved by space reduction.

Innovative products like the ones in this magazine will have plenty going for them. Apply them all, but use them to make people happy and more productive, and see if they change people’s behaviour for better or worse.