Will The Real Innovators Please Stand Up?

There seems to be a need for people to be more outspoken about their knowledge. Evangelists are hard to find. This seems to be especially true when it comes to innovators. It’s a catch-22: the true innovators are busy innovating, while there are hack self-professed “innovators” around every corner.

I’ve never called myself an innovator, and I don’t claim to do so in this post– get back to me later in life, when I’ve actually innovated to some degree. What I can say is that, ever since I started studying the diffusion of innovations and the role that design plays in a successful diffusion, I have been able to find those who claim to be innovative, those who actually innovate through design, and those who practice design thinking while ignoring the rest of the design process (this is also something I’m not crazy about either).

I’m going to try to explain design thinking and innovation to those who may be unfamiliar to the concepts. I see more and more companies opening up to certain processes and methods of ideation that skew the traditional, endless cycle of meetings.

These processes were developed and/or championed by design thinkers and designers. They are part of the reason why organizations should want to hire more designers.

While you could argue that we should be proud that more organizations are opening up to the methods we developed, the pragmatist in me (who is looking for a job as I write this, by the way) sees it in a very simple way: a Design Management degree loses value if employers and companies don’t understand how that added value came from us.

Which brings me to innovation.

I recently had the displeasure of learning that somebody I’ve had the misfortune of meeting– who I will not name but I will certainly label as an opportunistic lizard of the likes of Grima Wormtongue from the Lord of The Rings trilogy– is now brown-nosing his way around the world by calling himself a “social innovator.” This post is inspired by people like him. Sadly, he is not alone in prostituting the I-word into a buzzword used by mediocre businessmen who want to sound modern and edgy.

I want to make a public call to anyone contemplating the use of that word: brush up on what it actually means by reading Everett Rogers’s seminal work, Diffusion of Innovations (or at least its pseudo-plagiarized step-sibling, Crossing the Chasm, or at least go to this Wikipedia page). In there, you will find several interesting facts:

  • Innovation is a social process, not an idea or an artifact: Those are inventions and they happen a lot, but the only way they may be called innovations is if they successfully spread amongst the social set they’re exposed to. By this logic, the term “social innovator” is redundant.
  • Innovators make up the first section of a defined set of adopter categories: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, and Laggards. As such, Innovators have to meet a specific set of characteristics when it comes to a particular invention in order to fit the bill. Yes, there are people who meet the criteria in more than one area (Steve Jobs was an innovator in terms of personal computing, animation, and entertainment content distribution; Elon Musk is an innovator in automobiles as well as electronic payments; Richard Branson is an innovator in terms of sustainability, air travel, and just about anything else he feels like doing). However, to be called an innovator, you need to be extremely consistent in your opinion leadership and influence. Most of us don’t qualify. Most ironically, those who use the term in self-descriptive fashion tend to be laggards to the concept of innovations.
  • It’s almost impossible for somebody who brags about being an innovator to actually be one: Innovators are empathetic and selfless almost by definition. One of the key traits of innovators is that they are willing to share their discoveries with others in their social circle; ego does not serve this well. “But Santiago, you just said Steve Jobs was an innovator and he was an egotistical jerk!” I disagree. Jobs was by most accounts cantankerous and demanding of his employees, and to most outside of Apple, a very private person. This makes it very hard for anyone to assess what he was and wasn’t. The one thing you cannot say is that he didn’t use his massive influence and exceptional communication skills to share his (and Apple’s) discoveries. He understood that innovation is social and thus requires people to communicate in order to properly diffuse. Maybe he was a jerk to his employees, but I’m willing to bet that it came more from a place of wanting to share the absolute best with the world, which is where I would guess his empathy was directed.
  • Design and Innovation go hand in hand: Using Steve Jobs and Apple as an example here seems to be low-hanging fruit (you bet that was a pun), so I’m not going to. I’m going to focus on the role of design when it comes to solving problems and communication. The job of the designer is to find the problem, define it, and provide a solution. Depending on the area of design the designer is an expert in, the problem may manifest itself differently, as will the solution. Industrial designers use ergonomics way more than graphic designers, who in turn apply principles of typography and legibility way more than an interior designer. The whole point is that design is an aesthetic representation of solutions to problems faced by society. These solutions tend to be creative and come from applying lateral thinking in order to answer questions that have difficult answers. This process can be heartbreaking, frustrating, draining, but mostly exhilarating, because when the product is done, there is something usable in front of you, that deals with a problem, and came directly from you. Those are the inventions that tend to become innovations. Both design as well as innovation deal with finding something original from within the unknown.

It is because most people are not aware of what innovations really are that the word seems to have lost all meaning, kind of how the word “literally” now means what it originally meant as well as the direct opposite. I would be heartbroken if that were to happen to the word “innovation.” This is why it is important for evangelists to share their thoughts. Those who have real value to contribute to the conversation should come forward more often and ensure that informed voices are being heard amongst all the noise.

This is a call to action. Trust me, you don’t want to leave that task simply up to me.

Side note on the background image: I placed it there because of the reference made in the title of this post to Eminem’s Real Slim Shady. However, I think I could successfully argue that Eminem is a bigger innovator than most people who describe themselves using that word.

*Drops mic, walks out*