Innovation is the buzzword of the current government in Nova Scotia. Nearly half the recent throne speech concerned itself with innovation as the new savior of Nova Scotia’s economy.
They're right. Innovation will define our changing future. From Economic Development to Education, Health Care and the Environment, innovative ideas will change everything.
Here’s the problem. The Nova Scotia government does not have a clue what innovation is, how it works, where it comes from, or what it can do.
The Wall Street Journal, in an article titled You Call That Innovation, says, "Like the once ubiquitous buzzwords "synergy" and "optimization," innovation is in danger of becoming a cliché—if it isn't one already." (Note the article lampooning the misuse of the word 'innovation' is from 2012... that's how far behind the curve the current government is.)
The first things you’ll notice about innovation…
1/ Innovation is very rare.
New ideas, new ways of looking at things. Breakthroughs. Game changers. These things are valuable because they are rare.
2/ Innovation can’t be done on demand.
Telling entrepreneurs to “innovate” is the same as telling a band to just “write a hit song”, a gambler to just “win the lotto” or a prospector to “just find some gold”. It’s a patently ridiculous thing to say.
Here are some things we can do…
1/ We can define innovation.
2/ We identify the conditions under which innovation happens.
3/ We can understand the path to change over time.
We actually don’t have to do this work. There’s a generation of the smartest, fastest people in the world who’ve been working on this. Papers and books on the subject have been published widely.
The leading voice in the study of innovation is Clayton Christensen. In his landmark book THE INNOVATOR’S DILEMMA Christensen demonstrates how successful, outstanding companies can do everything “right” and yet still lose their market leadership – or even fail – as new, unexpected competitors rise and take over the market. It happens over and over. We’ve all seen examples of this. Christensen shaped it into a seminal theory of “disruptive innovation” that has changed the way managers and CEOs around the world think about innovation.
The innovator’s ‘dilemma’ comes from the idea that businesses will reject innovations that their customer does not currently demand, thus allowing “game-changing” ideas with great potential to go to waste. Christensen goes into great detail about the way in which ‘successful’ companies serving their customer needs, adopted new technologies and took rivals into consideration, but still ended up losing dominance in their market.
If this is how the world’s best run companies work, how do you think government works?
No organization in the world is less adept at doing or encouraging innovation than government. It’s kind of a joke. If it weren’t so sadly nefarious. The only way for government to help is to get out of the way. And the only way to do that is to break down the old-timey proven loser systems of economic development and "investment".
The book is not pessimistic. Think of Steve Jobs building the first Apple computers with his friends in his dad's garage. Think of who they were building them for. It reveals how change is accepted. It reveals the opportunities innovators have. And it reveals how new things cross the chasm to become 'our things'.
Here are a couple ways to define innovation…
Innovation makes a significant leap in the cost benefit ratio.
Innovation is surprising.
Clayton Christensen has just come out with a new book. The result of years of discussion about the Innovator’s Dilemma. The new book called Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice reveals that it is understanding and simply serving the customer that actually holds back innovation. This is not a totally new idea. Henry Ford famously remarked if he just asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses. What innovators get at is the job that needs to be done and the conditions for doing it.
Most products evolve with more options, do dads, more colours, new model years etc. We can call this More For The Same.
Luxury is also a way to define new things. We can call this More For More.
Economy class is now well understood. We call it Less For Less.
Innovation makes magic happen… innovation provides More For Less. Innovation gets jobs done, solves problems for less costs of time, money and effort than before. Innovation is not faster horses. Innovation is cheap easy fast transportation for everybody.
Under what conditions does innovation happen?
Ideas come un-assembled. Here’s my working rule of thumb… if you can explain it to a mid-level provincial bureaucrat it is NOT innovative. Government is, by definition, far on the other side of the chasm. It takes a certain set of conditions for crazy, stupid, and foolish, to become the new smart.
Innovation does NOT happen in big companies (that’s well established by Christensen and others). It doesn’t happen in class A office space. Generally, it doesn’t happen through people who have ‘jobs’ at all. Innovation happens outside the mainstream. It happens in garages, kitchens, and cabins. Innovation happens in spite of government, not because of it. This is actually a rule.
So what CAN government do?
1/ Government can work to define a shared understanding of what innovation is.
It’s no good to keep saying ‘innovation’ as if it can be conjured. The high price of innovation is not cash. It actually is often scrappy and cheap… that’s part of it (more for less). The price of innovation is risk, it’s change, it’s weird, it’s that most people DON’T want it. That, unfortunately, is a price almost no career politician would ever be willing to pay. So… we need leaders who aren’t career politicians.
2/ Government can encourage the conditions under which innovation happens.
The most famous example of this working is called “Skunk Works”. The designation "skunk works" is an old military term widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.
Government needs to give people room to move. To resist defining solutions and programs that simply encourage people to be “innovative” form-filler-outers. This means taking risk and mitigating that risk through diversification… making lots and lots of small bets rather than ‘mega-projects’. Government needs to create an environment where people can think creative, mechanical, thoughtful thoughts.
Government must give up its position as arbiter of innovation or we will be, axiomatically, limited to the ideas, creativity, and imaginations of politicians and bureaucrats.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.