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Idea Fishing or do you mean Innovation?

Idea Fishing or do you mean Innovation?

“We need to be more innovative.” “I am looking for innovative ideas.”  Line managers, purchasers, consumers are all looking for the new. The need for innovation now involves not just ‘traditional’ innovators like IT and Marketing but line management and HR as well. (In fact HR faces a double challenge; it has to recruit and develop line managers who are more innovative and do it in more innovative ways!) 

All this begs the questions when we talk about needing more innovation, do we agree what we are actually asking for?

Perhaps innovation is not about fishing around for new inventions and radical ideas – it is about understanding a challenge from new perspectives and finding a better way forward often built from existing ideas and approaches recombined.

Sometimes it’s worth looking at what a word actually means. Take innovation – it is not just another word for invention. It comes from the Latin ‘innovare’ which means to renew.  It is something you do to an existing situation rather than an outcome in itself. Innovation is not AND does not depend upon the invention of a new thing; whether that be product, technology, app, etc.  People sitting sweaty-palmed and anxious trying to invent something, coming up with a breakthrough idea to fill in the forbidding expanse of a flip-chart pad are not being innovative – they are idea-fishing. Freshly caught ideas may prompt innovation or they may just lie flapping helplessly by the river of possibility; in themselves they neither represent nor guarantee innovation. If Innovation is what you do to change things for a different or better result this can also be about the re-utilisation of existing ideas in unexpected and novel ways.

Yes, radically different results can be obtained because they have new parts, new technologies, they combine existing ideas in novel ways or they take an existing concept or approach and apply it to a new problem of opportunity. Essentially innovation is about re-understanding the problem; seeing it in new ways. (Which is why groups who understand the world in the same way, operating from the same assumptions - find it so hard to be innovative.) Breakthrough ideas and discoveries rarely just pop out of nowhere like high performing rabbits out of the corporate or technological hat. Instead, they arise when we combine deeper insights into what we are trying to do (what works, what doesn’t work, what causes what effects etc.) with a wider understanding of the potential in the field in which what we are trying to do operates. Understanding something more deeply is the first step in innovation. The second is to experiment in combining both existing and new ideas.

For example, the approach to Management and Leadership Development has been driven over the years by changes largely due to cost considerations and the availability of technology. The path has been one of trying to change behaviour through, self-study programmes, then open-learning centres, then computer-guided learning packages with increasing levels of sophistication. But if you add into our understanding of the challenge of developing talented managers the importance of social learning and other ideas from evolutionary psychology and the vital importance of different types of rehearsal from performance psychology it is possible to see where the gaps might lie in the approach that has dominated so far and why results have been mixed. Being innovative here requires the careful, thoughtful recombination of existing approaches in ways which create much greater and sustainable impact than before with optimum targeted use of the new.

The problem with this sort innovation is that it may be subtle. Because it is made up of familiar elements it is very easy for it to be compared with something that went before ‘that didn’t work’, or seem tired.  Often we don’t value the familiar and instead seek the new – when we have answer to the problem right in front of us, but just haven’t looked at it from new perspectives.

So, let’s all aim to be more innovative; by considering what we already know and looking at it afresh – and yes, let’s do a bit of fishing around for new inventions and radical ideas – but let’s not confuse one for the other.

Comments on this Post

Maggi Evans on 2nd December 2014

Really interesting Steve. For me, one of the key phrases here is 'deeper insights' - we only get these by investing time in some deep thinking, often prompted by conversation and dialogue with others. As a society we seem increasingly to be seduced by the immediate gratification and it seems that 'innovation' is part of this- a new idea as a substitute for deep insights and reworking. Often training and development is a rare opportunity for leaders to engage in this type of deep thinking - it may not look exciting on a timetable, but it surely helps to achieve the balance of new perspectives and old solutions which can really help an organization to move forward.

Philip Lindsay on 28th November 2014

You make important distinctions here - which are similar to those evoked by the work of Michael Kirton (Kirton Innovation-Adaption Inventory). While innovation and adaption are different,distinctive and powerful approaches to deliver 'creativity in the workplace', the main problem is getting people with these two different psychological 'problem-solving' orientations to appreciate each others' contributions and behavioural styles. It's not impossible - but help in promoting understanding and positioning leaders to enhance collaboration is important.

Denise Mann on 28th November 2014

I found the blog really interesting as we have run Management Training that has included innovation and you are right, people do look to produce something new and or different. Clearly new inventions are not always the answer and I agree that re-looking at an existing system and or process can provide excellent innovation particularly when you start to think outside of the box and ignore "we've always done it this way"!

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