Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Four fallacies of innovation

This graphic came via  Des Walsh and has a vague connection with my point tonight.

I have remarked before in the context of management and policy speak that topics often become popular when what is happening on the ground is different. Innovation is a case in point.

Innovation is all the go in this and many other countries. We see it in policy statements, in management reviews and writing, in global innovation indices. And yet, to my mind, real innovation has been in decline.

Thinking about this led me to think about some of the main fallacies connected with innovation. I thought that I might just list a few.

The first is that innovation = something new. One definition of the meaning of innovation is something new or different. Note both legs. By its nature, innovation involves the different, but that difference may not be new. In fact, innovation may involve the reinstatement of something that has worked in the past or be based on something that has worked in the past.

The second fallacy is that innovation = new technology. Innovation involves changes to the way that we do things, but those changes often have little if anything to do with technology. They are changes to the way that we do things or think about things. An example is the concept of law or the markets. 

Problems don't end here. The third fallacy is that innovation = advancement. That's not just true. it's not just that most innovations fail. More to the point, those that succeed may have very bad consequences indeed. Would anyone argue that innovation in the distribution of illegal drugs, in germ warfare, in the gas chambers of Dachau was an advancement? Yes, they may be advances in their particular fields, but ones with quite serious consequences.

My argument here is not about the value of innovation as such, but the meaning, purpose and measurement of innovation.

The next time some one says to you that Australia must become a more innovative society, ask them what they mean by innovation, what they hope to achieve, how would they measure success. Then you can have a discussion about the end results rather than implicitly accepting my last fallacy, innovation = good.  


Denis Wright said...

I feel that innovation by its Latin origin ["nova"] implies something about it has to be new, whether design or application, but not necessarily good or bad, or an 'advance'. As you say, the idea of progress is personal.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting, Denis, in terms of derivation. I still stick by different! I agree with your other points.

Evan said...

New in one field can be an import from a different field. Eg Ford adopting the production line from abbatoirs.

When business people say they want more innovation I think they usually mean more profit.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree on both points, Evan.

Anonymous said...

Two comments. Firstly, probably the definitive work on defining and measuring innovation, and making international comparisons, has been done by the OECD. See for example the OECD Oslo manual easily found through google). Secondly, the OECD definition of innovation is so vague and general as to be worthless, I suspect. I doubt that any company surveyed would be willing, or even have the necessary accounting information, to identify expenditure on innovation.

The OECD work on innovation extended its work on research and development (Frascati manual) which requires original discovery - it was recognised, that companies can gain competitive advantage by adopting, rather than inventing, technology, by new business processes, etc.

As I recall, models of economic growth tell us that continuous growth, as opposed to one-off effects, can only be achieved through some sort of innovation. Thus the importance of the subject in spite of the difficulties in defining and measuring 'innovation'.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Just so's you know - that anon isn't this anon. We other anons are very careful of our reputation!

I'm left wondering how one reconciles the "definitive work on defining and measuring innovation ... has been done by the OECD" with "the OECD definition of innovation is so vague and general as to be worthless"?

I accept I am usually three parts short of meaningful, but this time I think I have been very much out-gunned.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. I wish that the other anon had left a name. I wanted to thank him!

I interpreted his comment a little differently. The end point is his conclusion about the importance of innovation to continuous growth. I agree with that and hence his emphasis on the importance of innovation.

Oslo and Frascarti are part of a suite of OECD manuals attempting to show ways of defining and measuring things. Now here I interpreted anon as saying that Oslo shows that innovation was difficult to measure. I would agree with that.

So innovation is important to growth despite being hard to measure.

As I have argued before, because we focus on measurement we lose sight of what we are measuring. Then we promote something as important but twist the debate to focus on those things that can be measured.

Mind you, a fair bit of the policy & management jargon in this area is more akin to religious writing!