Innovation : definition, myths and management

(Version française)

Lately, I have spent some time googling around for some innovation inputs and it took me a while to gather all this material. So this comes as some sort of digest.

Scott Berkun (again and again !) has been the constant inspiration of this digest. He will lead us through this bulletin with this brilliant video of his lecture on the topic @ Carnegie Mellon (50ish minutes – recommend to view after reading the post).

Also featuring : Brad Bird (Pixar), Steve Jobs, Douglas Merrill (Google), Linda Naiman, DHH (37Signals), Kathy Sierra (Head First series), etc … 

Innovation : definition

This is the most satisfactory definition I could find, after a couple of days of relentless search (part-time). Actually a pretty good one  :

Innovation is the process that translates knowledge into economic growth and social well-being. (Autralian Research Council)

Innovation = Problem Solving

Looking into different material in search for the innovation Graal, I’ve noticed that many people interested in innovation come with the problem paradigm : If you want to innovate, don’t look for solutions, look for a problem (P. Graham @ StartUp School 08)

To which Google CIO echoes : To innovate, start with a problem not a solution (Douglas Merrill – Innovation at Googlethis Douglas Merrill really makes me think of a silicon valley version of Quentin Tarantino – fast, hectic, excited.)

Scott Berkun on Harvard Business extends the vocabulary while explaining why Innovation is overrated : Inventors, creators and leaders (…) rarely used that word themselves. Instead their vocabularies leaned heavily on words like problem, experiment, risks, prototype.

Not to forget DHH@StartupSchool08 : Good innovation comes from just solving simple problems that you’re intimately involved with.

Innovation = A good product

Another strong trend amongst these e-public figures, is that innovation is a natural offspring of good product, not the other way round :

Instead of asking “How can we be innovative”, a toothless and vague question with mostly useless answers, we should be asking “How can we make great things” (Scott Berkun)

This great product thing has to be a common aspiration for people working on it : Q: How do you manage for innovation. A : We hire people who want to make the best things in the world (Steve Jobs)

A great product can only be the result of strong focus as Steve Jobs answered to Business Week : Innovation comes from saying no to 1000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much

And this product HAS to bring competitive advantage and revenue :

Innovation is only as good as the business value it has created (D. Merrill).

Innovation : a mean to get a competitive advantage by meeting a business need (Erwann Neau)

Innovation = Risk Taking

Eventhough the target of the book is more marketing, it is still strongly recommended to read the Purple Cow by marketing guru Seth Godin : The old ways (of marketing) are dead and being safe is now to risky

You didn’t think we would complete this bulletin on innovation without mentioning Kathy Sierra did you ? Risk Aversion is the single biggest innovation killer

The next quote from Peter Drucker is more general business related. However, I think it completely applies to innovation management in IT industry : Each time you see a successfull business tell yourself there is a brave desicion behind

Fostering Innovation

Quite a few quality material on this topic. Linda Naiman (Creativity at works) and both agree on the need to have a clear vision and strategy to align innovation onto :

Make sure vision is clearly communicated (Linda Naiman). Innovation workers must be able to integrate corporate strategy into their evaluation of possible innovation paths (

Setting up the appropriate climate is also one of the main success factor for innovation.

Most important thing for innovation is create a climate for it. Some companies are trying to build this climate : safety, participation, where people are involved and comfortable with voicing new ideas. Strangely it doesn’t happen often enough. (Ranjay Gulati – PHD, teacher Harvard Business School on CNBC)

Another key item is to provoke and encourage engagement.

“The reason why we serve food at Google it is because at lunch time people engage, discuss and exchange ideas” (D. Merrill). “Steve Jobs basically designed Pixar building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. He put the mailboxes, the meetings rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the centerso that you run into everybody during the course of a day then they make eye contact and then things happen”. (Brad Bird)

Constant (L. Neiman) and inter disciplinary learning also is strongly encouraged :

If you work in lighting but you want to learn how to animate, there’s a class to show you animation. There are classes in story structure, in Photoshop, even in Krav Maga, the Israeli self-defense system. Pixar basically encourages people to learn outside of their areas, which makes them more complete. (Brad Bird answering gigaom)

Another common recipe to foster innovation is to look for diversity. Again, L. Neiman and Douglas Merrill agree on this one as the latter puts it :

We live out load, we have arguments. We believe the best way to find a new idea is to get different people thinking about the same problem

Managing Innovation

Strategy is clear, innovation is aligned, defined and encouraged. How about managing it ? Let’s first ask Steve Jobs how can we systemize innovation :

The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean we don’t have process. Apple is a very disciplined company, and we have great processes. But that’s not what it’s about. Process makes you more efficient.

It’s a pretty delicate issue, though. As Douglas Merrill puts it :

Innovation is a fragile flower. Dont try to structure it. At Google, 20% of our engineers time is dedicated to their own project. They just manage this time as they want. Chaos brings creativity.

Innovation is such a fragile flower that no measure is drastic enough to protect it : Brad Bird it’s pretty straightforward :

What undermine innovation ? Passaive aggressive people—people who don’t show their colors in the group but then get behind the scenes and peck away—are poisonous. I can usually spot those people fairly soon and I weed them out.

Also : watch out the devil’s advocate. Kathy Sierra quotes Tom Kelley (The ten faces of innovation) from IDEO on that very topic :

Tom Kelley–general manager of IDEO–believes that “devil’s advocate may be the biggest innovation killer in America today.” Invoking “the awesome protective power” lets the devil’s advocate be incredibly negative and slash your idea to shreds, all while appearing not only innocent but reasoned, balanced, intelligent…

And then there is the reward policy. Basically : reward innovation and don’t blame failure. Douglas Merrill, Linda Neiman all agree on this approach, perpetuating William Mc Knight philosophy (Via Scott Berkun video) :

Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.

Diffusing Innovation

The diffusion of innovation is based more on sociology and psychology than on technology (Everett RogersDiffusion of Innovation)

Here the thing technologists hate : whenever they come with innovation, the main forces against the innnovation adoption are sociologic ones : ego, envy, fear, pride, politics, security etc … These are the most common negative reactions according to the Myths of Innovation from Scott Berkun.

And these are the factors according to E. Rodgers as reported by Scott Berkun to measure how likely your solution is bound to be adopted :

  • Relative advantage : what value does it bring ?
  • Compatibility : how much effort to transition to this innovation ?
  • Complexity : how much learning is required to apply it ?
  • Trialability : How easy is it to try the innovation ?
  • Observability : How visible are the results ?

Myths of Innovation

Last but not least, let’s honor our tutor for this first post of the serie with reference to his Myths Of Innovation book.  These are the most common ones :

  • Innovation happens as epiphany Epiphany is the tip of a creative iceberg. It happens as a result of long thoughts process
  • Disruptive ideas come out from out of the blue. Disruptive ideas are a combination of other ideas. New ideas out of the void are extremely seldom
  • Great innovators are usually egostical mavericks. Innovation mostly is a collaborative process
  • People love new ideas. People fill unsafe with novelty, innovation inspire fear.
  • Innovators know, they have a plan. Many innovations are accident. The biggest challenge is to know when it’s good enough.


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