Innovation in a Can

I’ve been in technology (I won’t <shudder> call it “IT”) for all of my professional and pre-professional / kid life. What drew me and millions of others in was the creative element — this machine that through entering in strange words and phrases you could alchemize into a video game, a music player, a document. That was a true with my first computer, the 5K powerhouse Commodore VIC-20, and so much more true today. We live in a time of unprecedented access to inexpensive and vastly powerful tools; and in a time transformed utterly by technological innovation.

In the class I teach periodically on trends in technology, I tell my students that everything comes back to progress along three raw materials: connectivity (the internet), storage (more data), and processing power (hello, Mr. Moore). But they are just clay, just a means to create whatever is the new new thing. In my lifetime, computers have gone from a unicorn-like rarity to being an inseparable part of every person’s life. My first internship at a transportation company, perhaps one in five people had a computer on their desk. Most correspondence was by postal mail, written on an electric typewriter. Calculators and calculator tape were ubiquitous as the means to track and validate the finances of what was then a more than $50M a year in revenue firm.

Today, computers — technology, generally — really is a commodity. Most people in developed countries view their access to the internet, their phones, their tablets as akin to their access to electricity and water. Ask your average American or European teenager if they’d give up their phone for a week and you’d get the same incredulous reaction as if you had asked them to turn off the heat in their homes for a week. But the problem for companies, especially tech-centric companies, is that many have come to see innovation as something you can get off the shelf like your accounting tools or email.

This was driven home to me recently by a series of meetings and pitches from vendors on their services, top among them was “innovation services.” Then it struck me: there are loads of companies — and there are, sadly, many technology heads — who look for innovation in a can. Not sure how to improve the 10 year-old software that your customers use to manage their widgets? Call up Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and ask for their crack team of consultants to come in and tell you how to innovate using the “Sickest New Cool Tools” with KanScrumGile techniques. Need people to code and test your applications? Enter into a five-year agreement with ContractCo to do it for you and fire all your in-house talent.

Now, before the pitchforks and angry tweets come out, let me draw a a very important distinction between asking an outside firm to help facilitate creative, brainstorming sessions, or help you implement an idea to fully outsourcing creativity. The former is an awesome idea; the latter is death. Why? Because companies who lack ideas, who abrogate their responsibility to move their products and business forward are dinosaurs waiting for the asteroid. You always have to challenge yourself because somewhere (and the internet means it could be anywhere) there’s an idea taking shape that will change your industry. That idea should come from within your own walls. Don’t have those people? Hire them. Don’t have a culture that encourages ideas? Change the culture. And, please, please, don’t try to solve the problem by creating an “innovation committee.”

Every company, no matter how storied the industry or long-lived the product, needs to have the resources to reinvent themselves. We are gifted with enormous, nearly wizard-like powers with the technology we have today. Go build something cool.