Can you institutionalise innovation without killing it?

Andrew Wyld, Creative Technologist in London, UK
02 January 2019

At Somo, we take innovation pretty seriously; one of our four cardinal values is Love Innovation, and I can honestly say it's one we try to live up to. In tech, things move pretty fast; rather like Alice's Red Queen, if you don't keep ahead, you fall behind. We pride ourselves on sprinkling our innovation magic over all the work we do with other companies, and helping them keep ahead as well.

Rather like a quantum wavefunction or a soap bubble, innovation also seems to be something that can be destroyed if you try to grasp it too tightly. By its very nature, it's a refusal to be bound by existing rules and an ability to look for solutions outside existing systems.

This seems to lead us to a paradox. How can we systematically embed innovation into what we do if the very concept is a rejection of the rigidity and restrictions of existing systems?

I believe it can be done. I'd like to show you how—at least in my opinion—innovation can not only survive as part of a company's regular process, but that it belongs there if it is truly to thrive.

What we mean by innovation

Innovation is a word people love to use without thinking about it too hard. It's a great shorthand for brilliant ideas giving rise to beneficial progress, and since about 1950 people have really enjoyed starting sentences with it in a way they apparently hadn't previously.

Wavefunction graphic

In information theory, there's a concept that the more common a word is, the less information it conveys, so this recent surge in usage means it's worth our while considering exactly what we mean.

At Somo, we use innovation to mean the creation of radical change by means of an inventive or novel step. It is not merely enough for an idea to be new; it must change things in a fundamental way. That change does not have to be enormous, but it must be more than superficial.

This means true innovation relies on two things: creative invention, and following through on that.

People power

In the film Ratatouille, the celebrated (and deceased) chef Auguste Gusteau staked his reputation on the idea that "anyone can cook". The film explores what that means, eventually settling on this idea: greatness can come from anywhere.

I happen to believe that's true of innovation, which means that companies need to create a culture of innovation to unlock the greatness within their talented experts. I also believe in putting my money where my mouth is, so I asked our talented experts to remember times in their life when they had done their most innovative work, and what in their surroundings had helped them unlock that potential. The rest of this piece pulls together their responses as part of a description of an innovative company.

Cross-fertilisation and the value of diversity

A lot of people mentioned the value of diversity of ideas and cross fertilisation between disciplines, and even within disciplines.

My own experience has borne this out. The first time I ever managed a team, one of my reports was interested in improving our build tools and processes. I find these things incredibly dull, so I lazily delegated these tasks to him. He loved the responsibility; I loved not having to do the tasks. In a team of people just like me, someone would have been bored! I hasten to add I can take no credit for this serendipitous task division, but I have since discovered that great teams are usually diverse teams, for this exact reason.

In innovation this is doubly true. We all create in different ways, and we all see things others don't. Getting all those ideas in the room is vital (which is why we started this process by asking people how they innovate).

Creative and reductive intelligence

There's a good deal of evidence that intelligence operates in two modes: creative and reductive. Reductive intelligence is the type usually measured by exams, and is characterised by questions like "how many standard bricks does it take to build a wall five metres long and two metres high?"

Creative intelligence, by contrast, is the kind small children have in great abundance, and is characterised by questions like "what can you do with a brick, besides building walls?" Valid answers could include "use it as a paperweight", "try to take it through airport security just to see what happens" or "stick googly eyes on it and call it Baron von Clayface".

Essentially, reductive problems have a right answer; creative problems have a number of valid answers, all of which may be right, but whose usefulness cannot be known ahead of time (though I submit that Baron von Clayface is clearly destined for greatness).

The kind of radical change at the heart of a true innovation requires the application of creative intelligence followed by reductive: having a brilliant idea in a free environment, then defining, refining and realising that idea through planned and disciplined work. This is a difficult balance to achieve.

This reflects our research strongly. Many of our respondents mentioned needing free time to play and think creatively. Others wanted time to pursue ideas they had already had. A few people identified the need for both freedom and constraints: problems with space for creative thinking, but something to structure that creativity.

Under pressure

There's a reasonable amount of experimental evidence to show that reductive intelligence thrives under pressure more than creative intelligence. Reductive tasks are well-defined, and concentration and focus helps us achieve them and avoid distractions.

Creative tasks, however, may be very broadly defined; an ability to think laterally and challenge ones own preconceptions and assumptions can lead to more radical or interesting solutions. Too much focus is actively unhelpful, since the purpose of a creative task is to explore: choosing a focus presupposes you know where the answer is to be found.

Making space to invent

It should be clear that reductive and creative intelligence are motivated in very different ways. Unfortunately, many jobs are reductive, and so many managers are more comfortable motivating that kind of task. It's easy to understand how adding a little pressure can help someone focus more; harder to understand how removing pressure could help them think more clearly.

I often say that the work of a developer is mostly thinking. The typing is only part of it, but it's the part that looks like work. Yet we've all had great ideas in the shower; so many times, I've solved a problem that had been bugging me all day during the train ride home, simply because I let myself defocus for a few minutes. Motivating innovation, counterintuitively, can mean getting out of the way and allowing people space to do their best work—even (and perhaps especially) when it doesn't look like work.

The follow through

None of this wonderful creativity is worth anything unless you make something of it.

In terms of our individual work, this means taking each creative solution and turning it into a reductive problem: how can we achieve this specific goal best? Focus and hard work—the old-fashioned kind, with a specific outcome to achieve—are the only way to make our visions into concrete reality.

However, in terms of companies, this means investing in great ideas. People can't focus on something if they aren't given the time to do it.

Ironically, the follow-through is the area where most companies already excel: methodical production of a well-defined solution. Connecting this to innovative thinking is a small step that can allow a giant leap to happen.

Vision vs the visionary

We humans think in stories, and stories tend to have a protagonist. Stories about innovation are no different. To date, there have been three movies about Steve Jobs, someone considered by many to be a visionary innovator. There have been zero films about Steve Wozniak or Jony Ive, though The Woz did get to be played by the excellent Seth Rogen in one of the Jobs movies.

There has never been a movie about Alan Kay, who envisaged and developed everything in the first Mac (and more) between 1968 and 1975. There has been one film about Doug Engelbart, who legendarily demonstrated the mouse, video chat and web-like hypertext in 1968, but it didn't do as well at the box office as the three Steve Jobs movies. There hasn't been a movie about Nimish Mehta, Myron Krueger, Bob Boie, Bill Buxton or Jeff Han; all of their work prefigured the iPhone's radical multitouch interface.

Even here, though, I am telling you the names of principal players. Each of these people worked with teams of creative and intelligent people. They deserve their reputation, but I hope you can see that even the greatest visionaries see through the eyes of everyone around them and behind them as well as their own.

If I seem to be belabouring this point, it's because it dies so very hard. We like stories with a hero, but every great innovation has many protagonists and very, very few heroes—and they often aren't the people who seem the most heroic. Every person in your company has the capacity to create. The greatest innovation comes by unlocking all of those people's creativity. We need to focus on promoting vision, rather than the visionary.

A number of respondents in our research wanted to be credited and recognised for their good ideas. It's tempting to identify a key figure in a project as the node around which innovation crystallises, but it's vital to resist this and ensure that credit ends up where it is due. (If this spawns a blog about the innovative storytelling method needed to achieve this—good.)

Innovation is a daily discipline

All of this leads me to the last point I want to make here: innovation isn't about a single thunderbolt moment (although those are amazing, when they strike). It's a daily discipline, a decision to cultivate habits of mind that allow us to be open to creative solutions, and focussed enough to build on them when they arrive.

The nature of innovation is that we cannot know when we will need it, and we cannot know when it will present itself. Cultivating an attitude of openness and awareness can help us see opportunities we would otherwise miss. Consider Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in mould growing on an agar dish he had failed to wash up: many would simply have washed the dish, but he looked. (Also he evidently wasn't much of a washer-upper, but there we go.)

Not only this, but we should also cultivate the attitude of giving space to our colleagues to innovate. Many people said that their most innovative ideas came from cross-disciplinary discussions introducing them to new ideas and ways of thinking: we should be generous with our ideas, because we can give and receive inspiration in ways we could not imagine alone.

Charles Baudelaire once said, "inspiration comes of working every day". I believe that's true. Innovation as a discipline can and should be woven through everything we do. To be really innovative, we have to be prepared to work at it.