A few months ago, listening to BBC Radio 4, I heard a government minister use a word, or one of its derivatives, well over 48 times in a four minute segment. Well, I only started counting after I had heard it half a dozen times and I stopped counting at 48, but the barrage continued. The word in question: innovation. The problem was, not one of the instances where the word was used had anything to do with real innovation. The word was being loosely employed to denote some aspiration for newness or a mild departure from previous practice.
We have a habit of doing this with brilliant meaningful words and phrases. Casually employing them inappropriately with the effect that we drift from their true meaning and devalue them over time. Take public consultations for example. A beautiful idea in principle, that we should engage in a meaningful discussion between state and the citizenry before some policy suggestion becomes a reality for said citizens. Yet what we get is 180 page documents written in some impenetrable language that is only accessible to lobbyists and their lawyers. And then we scratch our heads wondering where the trust between the citizen and her government has gone…
Anyway, let’s get back to innovation. Innovation does not mean ‘new’. It has formal definitions, methodologies, tool kits, processes, and varieties, none of which can be simplified down to the vulgar ‘new’. There are many wonderful synonyms to be had if you need a flexibility and variation on ‘new’, but innovation isn’t one of them.
So what is innovation? Out of the many valid definitions of innovation, I tend to reach for one that comes out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and they know a thing or two about it) because it encompasses all the key dimensions to innovation.
Innovation: the successful embodiment of a useful idea into the marketplace.
The two key words in there are embodiment and marketplace. Embodiment suggests the ideas have to become tangible or visible, not just abstract mental concepts. Marketplace suggests the idea is adopted by users that recognise its value. If your great idea doesn’t become a tangible service or product, with recognised value that users choose to purchase or adopt, then it is not innovation.
During a recent Procurement Innovation event, Philip Colligan from NESTA, made two clear observations. First he said “Citizens expect something more of government, but government are not good at change or adapting” followed by “There is an appetite for innovation but skills haven’t kept pace.” We can see the appetite for change growing within government, largely in response to the current financial pressures and a growing appreciation of the new models for designing services around user needs. The big risk is we designate things such as ‘innovation’, ‘design thinking’, or ‘co-production’ as the new silver bullet panacea without the required depth of consideration to understand what these things really mean or how they work. Without the required investment to understand how new models work and under what circumstances they can successfully be applied, they are bound to fail, consigned to the graveyard of silver bullets past.
Here at the Satori Lab we are preoccupied with addressing the cultural dimensions to these and other challenges. Introducing new mental models, without proper attention to the cultural environment of the system they are being introduced into, can provoke a reaction similar to an immune system crushing an incoming pathogen. This problem is generally compounded when there is a limited understanding of the mechanics and benefits of the new mental model in question.
A clever German-born physicist once said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, so we had better invest in our capacity to think differently, and that starts with deepening our understanding of the new mental models available to help us do that.
We are trying to help people deepen their understanding of these new mental models, and to that end we’ve cooked up a workshop to help you unpack innovation. Come along on April 7th in Cardiff, or get in touch if you would like us to bring the workshop to you. As for the cultural dimensions, well, the world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved, and we’re cooking something up in the lab. Watch this space…