Why you probably don’t want innovation

Tom Goodwin
Apr 21, 2017 · 7 min read

Everyone seems to want innovation these days, it’s why I’ve got it in my title.

Nobody really knows what it is, but everybody, and I mean everybody, wants it.

Everyone wants to be the first.

Everyone wants to growth hack, to have a launch partner, to accelerate or incubate.

Everyone wants AI without being bogged down with details, (like: hum, AI isn’t really here yet).

Everyone wants to test and learn, so long as it’s failing fast without the failure.

Everyone wants to work with a startup, whatever that actually means. We all want to win the award for taking the risk, so long as it wasn’t risky.

We want to all be the “disruptors” of the world, so long as it’s not disruptive. We see the sexy poster children of the early 21st century and want to emulate their funky vision, without the problem of survivorship bias dragging us down.

We all want to do crazy stuff, so long as “it comes with a data supported argument,” even if the data projections are (without exception) absolute BOLLOCKS.

Everyone wants to be the person who did the funny Twitter thing, or the Drone stuff or the Google Home hack from the ad that never was an ad, but was just PR.

Everyone wants to be the Warby Parker of Cat food, and reduce their margins in the process.

We all need to think how the internet of things should be applied to yellow fats. Chatbots for Ice Cream, iBeacons for magazines, AR for Gas stations, let me at it.

But in all this, take a moment, are we celebrating the people who made the difference, the idea that moved needles, or the people who made the Press Release?

Innovation seems to be applied in the quadrant of “not that important and easy to do.” Why can’t we apply innovation to “vitally important and really hard?” Why can’t we start with people for ideation, and solving problems, rather than playing with a shiny new toy. No brief should be “we need a chatbot,” it should be “we need (blank and blank) to help people xxxxx.”

Innovation is really hard.

Proper innovation doesn’t happen at the edge; the edge is easy.

We can give a $30k bounty for the best idea, we can do stuff with University kids and whiteboards or the open source competition.

But these are the trappings or garnish of innovation and if we’re celebrating the process of innovation and not the outcome of it, we’ve got it all wrong.

If we are to celebrate the things our friends in the industry know about, but no person in the real world hears about, like a forest in a tree or Schrodingers cat, did it really happen? Are we that self serving?

We’ve come to celebrate the theater of innovation not the workshop of it. Innovation is sweaty, risky, terrifying and takes balls. So are you really up for it?

Real innovation happens at the core. Where it’s hard. It’s changing businesses models, changing culture, changing the ways people work, changing how we think about our roles. Changing a lot, and changing things painfully. So are you really prepared to do what it takes?

It’s not just the physical manifestations of Innovation

In life we often get causation the wrong way around. We think that happy, creative, entrepreneurial places with pool tables and free food, random gym equipment, dogs in the office, and everyone getting hammered at 4pm on a Thursday are the ingredients.

We see offices install table tennis tables and institute happy hours and we expect people to become creative, we are shocked when they don’t. It’s the wrong way around.

Nice offices happen as a result of funky funness, they don’t make it.

Innovation is the same.

We can’t retrofit companies with creativity, boldness, and crazy ideas through the installation of some aspects that may happened to exist in some companies we admire. Funky red asymmetric furniture, the post it notes, the parallax scrolling websites and the venture arms are great, what actually comes of it all?

There is a lot of codification and sanitization of innovation.

It’s the innovation days with 20 curated and briefed companies, with the same short creds presentations, a neat scorecard to make selection easy, and a brochure to merchandise the effort put in.

It’s the startup safaris of the Silicon Roundabout with the nice narrative and absolute zero chance of anything of any significance actually happening.

It’s the inspiration presentation from a startup founder that everyone wants to be, the trends presentation from someone with funny hair (if I’m lucky, maybe me).

It’s the breakout sessions, the guest speaker and the workshop with the oddly big pens and bigger sheets of paper, and clichés about all ideas being good and maybe a picture of a lightbulb or a box.

Codification and productization of innovation makes it easily buyable, but does it lead to much? And isn’t that the ONLY thing that matters.

Innovation is not a session, it can’t be shipped in, or outsourced for a sunny Friday. It’s a culture. It’s angry people who care and want to make change and (hopefully) people who will forgive them. It’s not a product and if it was it would look horrible, it would be spelled wrong.

Innovation is the opposite of what we are pretending the word means.

  • Innovation really happens by people that give so much of a shit they get fired in many places.
  • Change happens because ideas compel odd people to take risks because they believe in it.
  • Innovation is people having massive arguments.
  • It’s pissing off most people. It’s going against policies. It’s being a huge pain but with the most pure of intentions, that will be misunderstood.
  • True innovation will be questioned. “Who are they to care so much?” The remarks will include, “Chill out, this is awkward, you’re irritating everyone.”

Yet, innovation is knowing that heat makes fire…somewhere…

It’s ideas that make people laugh. It’s barging into an office because you are not going to wait until August. You are not going to wait for the “off site” or for “2018 planning.”

Innovation is phoning the Client up directly, or shoving an image into someone’s face as they pee.

Innovation is horribly painful, deeply disturbing and massively disruptive. It’s an ugly process, messy, awkward, rude, counterintuitive. If it’s not making you FEEL a lot of things it’s not innovation.

Innovation is writing this literally in 22 mins, when you are supposed to be prepping for a TV interview and not really spell checking it and publishing it, because you care only about making a difference and because sometimes flow is good.

Innovation doesn’t work with any normal form of accountancy.

Nobody has any idea what the ROI will be because to the very core of the idea it must be new.

I can’t show case studies of others doing it because “something that’s not been done before” by definition doesn’t have a precedent. Innovation may require new software that I can’t get IT’s permission to use. But we must fight for it, anyway.

Innovation is asking for favors: it’s the borrowed 4K camera, the guy from Craigslist, the model I met on Tinder and a sunny day to make a proof of concept, not waiting for the creative agency to meet to schedule a call, to talk about a meeting, where if the deck looks good, and the data solid, we might be able to raise the issue of a test shoot next year. I’m going to just send you a link on Twitter.

Innovation is done in two ways.

  1. Work around a customer or client problem and find companies or models or things that solve it.
  2. OR, (and this is more rare), find a new technology, behavior or thing, which is so impossibly amazing, we can do something brilliant with it.

So be honest, do you want the workshop of innovation or the theater? Do you want to show you were busy, show you tried, tick boxes on performance reviews.

Or do you want to bring about change that you put your heart and soul into.

It’s going to mean massive fights with most people in finance, heck everyone. It’s going to make you feel heartbroken, broken, vulnerable, and maybe a bit awesome if it makes a difference.

I wrote this in 26 minutes when I should be doing something else. I met a start up this am that COULD genuinely change the future of many things, mCommerce, mobile advertising, search. I saw stuff far far beyond what Facebook showed at F8 this week in person.

So I’d love to get people enthused about how we can bring stuff like this to life. To act incredibly fast, and to smash through an advertising culture of spreadsheets, data supported sell ins — and meetings. My intentions are good. Feel free to DM me to be part of making something, not being busy acting the part.

Startup Grind

The life, work, and tactics of entrepreneurs around the world. Welcoming submissions on technology trends, product design, growth strategies, and venture investing. Learn more about how you can get involved at startupgrind.com.

Tom Goodwin

Written by

Contributor to The Guardian,TechCrunch, Inc, Wharton, Ad Age, World Economic Forum,Times, New York Times, blah , etc EVP Strategy and Innovation at ZenithMedia

Startup Grind

The life, work, and tactics of entrepreneurs around the world. Welcoming submissions on technology trends, product design, growth strategies, and venture investing. Learn more about how you can get involved at startupgrind.com.

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