Innovation: What’s philosophy got to do with it?

We’ve been working in the start-up and scale-up space in London for over 5 years now. Our grind is graduate recruitment — not the most well liked of industries. We were founded by recent graduates, for recent graduates, a small business recruiting for small businesses. So, whilst it’s a tough industry, we’re working with some of the most incredible young people and speaking to some of the most exciting young companies.

And thus the word “innovation” comes up a lot. Innovation within the industry, innovation in the workplace, innovations of our clients and so on and so forth. We hear about it so much so that it’s actually become a bit of a buzzword, and even we are guilt of getting a little innovation fatigue.

We’ve learned a huge amount from other entrepreneurs and small businesses who have shared their knowledge on the topic, and these learnings are both inspired and inspiring. That being said, we recently came across a the work ofRobert Rowland Smith — a lecturer of philosophy, literature and psychoanalysis at Oxford University.

His take on the topic presented some ideas we’d hadn’t come across before, probably because we don’t spend all that much time talking to philosophers in our line of work. So we took a couple of minutes to pen some musings, bear with us if you will.

There is a distinction to be made between the term “innovation” and “creativity”.

We sometimes use them interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference which can impact the way we approach the topic: creativity is the use of our imagination or original ideas to create something, innovation is the process of innovating a new idea. In business, we take innovation to mean the acquisition or production of ideas, whereas creativity is the process of reaching original thought. Innovation in the context of the workplace can therefore be thought of as developing upon and existing thought, process, product or service.

Sometimes, in business, we innovate incorrectly

The ways we innovate in business tend to be head based activities like brainstorming, research & development and ideation. This can work but it can also really not — why? Because, we usually brainstorm in groups and there is still an element of organisational politics or team dynamics that comes into play. We say things for effect, use buzzwords and try to impress. We say things that we think are contemporary but really we just are re-affirming ideas that already exist. The focus of brainstorming is always to generate an idea or to come to a solution, it is a tool to help us reach a productive end rather than a reflective space or truly innovative process.

We don’t find ideas, they find us

Rowland-Smith drew on his experience of working with artists and highlighted that one of the key things he’d noticed was how when artists come up with an idea, they express it by saying “it came to me”, but in the working world, when we come up with an idea we say “I came up with it”. It’s a small difference perhaps but an important one because it puts the focus back on the process — maybe we don’t find ideas, they find us. In a workplace context or in an environment of targets, KPI’s, agendas and meeting minutes, the focus on the process is often lost. Whilst all of those things are vital in driving performance and productivity, they can hinder the innovative process.

Whilst the transition between philosophy and innovation in the workplace may not be obvious, there are tried and tested concepts that can be applied. In our next post, we’ll be delving into that innovative process further and exploring some of these concepts.

Let us know your thoughts, and to find out more about Robert Rowland Smith and his work, head over here.

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