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Innovating Innovation: Our Current Model is Broken

Greg Tricklebank

I believe that ‘innovation’ is the source of constant discussion because nobody knows what to do about the massive problems facing the world today.

 Whether on the national stage or at the level of the organization, the message is the same, “we must innovate if we hope to….”

But saying that we need to innovate is the same as saying we need to change – no more and no less.

Hindsight is 20/20

The term ‘innovation’ invokes images of the great transformational changes brought about by inventions like the printing press, the steam engine and the microchip. 

This is what makes it attractive as a goal for leaders of business and government and a marketing hook for the consultants who advise them.  The innovator will gain economic benefits, provided that intellectual property rights can be protected.

The hype surrounding innovation must be based on the belief that, provided we don’t annihilate the planet, the future is going to be both better and radically different from the present. 

However, a moment’s reflection should convince anyone that innovation of this magnitude - genuine innovation on par with adoption of the steam engine - cannot be planned or predicted.  Change is only innovative in hindsight, which is why it is such a favorite topic for historians.

It’s Business as Usual

Reputable consultants know better than to guarantee innovation. 

Instead, we promise to create the organizational conditions that will increase the probability of innovation.  The recipe for this is available, free of charge, on numerous websites, and includes some combination of the following:

  • Risk taking– provideemotional support to those willing to try something new and demonstrate more interest in learning from failure than in punishing it.
  • Resources– provide concrete resources of money and time, backed up with the appropriate levels of authority and autonomy to act on new ideas.
  • Knowledge– ensure that information, both from within and outside the organization or system, is widely gathered, easily accessible, rapidly transmitted, and honestly communicated.
  • Goals– clearly state what needs to be achieved and avoid becoming prescriptive as to how it must be achieved.
  • Rewards– reward innovative behaviour, paying special attention to the symbolic value of awards and rituals which appeal to people’s intrinsic and individualized motivation.
  • Tools– without being too prescriptive, consider ways to build capability and capacity in deliberate methods for creative thinking.
  • Relationships– because innovative ideas typically evolve from collaborative relationships and are rarely the product of a ‘lone genius’, encourage a sense of being in a team, where those with different thinking can trust that their input will be honouredand explored, rather than immediately argued against.

(This particular list is borrowed from the U.K. Department for Business Innovation and Skills)

Not surprisingly, this is similar to the recipe that we offer to achieve any organizational change – organizational learning, organizational maturity, total quality management, overcoming resistance, etc.  In other words, the talk of ‘innovation’ in this context is a re-packaging of a tried and true generic solution to poor organizational functioning.

The Unsustainable Pleasures of Consumerism

The problem for me is the impoverishment of the term ‘innovation’ for what is essentially The-affluent-society-150x232marketing purposes. 

But is there really any harm in this?  Well, it tends to limit the conversation in a way that eliminates the consideration of the broad social transformations that are brought about by true innovations.  Even worse, it promotes the delusion that the changes we need to create in our current global socio-economic system can be brought about by high performing ‘innovative’ organizations within the existing paradigm.

According to John Kenneth Galbraith, my favorite political economist and author of The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State, the modern fetish for innovation, when combined with mass advertising, serves the established economic order by securing a market for an endless supply of products - regardless of their utility, function, need or harm to the environment. 

Notwithstanding the pleasures of consumerism - misguided or otherwise - continuous incremental innovation of this kind appears Ipod-nanos-400x214to be both unsustainable and necessary to keep the entire economic system from collapsing.  

A ‘New’ Manifesto

I am somewhat sympathetic with the view that this is not a practical business concern.

However, I also believe that our business and government leaders who resort to arguments of ‘practicality’ are frequently using this as an excuse to avoid difficult and important issues - issues that often interfere with the pursuit of short-term private interests.

The New Capitalist Manifesto is a recent book on the subject by Umair Haque.  In it he proposes a new paradigm for business based on the well-founded assumption that Industrial Era tactics are unsustainable.  The following table is a brief synopsis of his suggestions for a new 21st century approach to business.


Industrial Era Capitalism

21st Century Capitalism

How production, consumption and exchange happen

A linear value chain exploits resources until they are depleted

Circular production networks are designed for reclamation and reuse

Which products and services are produced, consumed and exchanged

Branding conveys the benefits of a one-sided value proposition

Resources are allocated democratically, on the basis of many-sided value conversations

Why production, consumption and exchange happen

Based on short-term strategies designed to block competition and dominate a marketplace

Based on enduring philosophies aimed at providing a long-term evolutionary edge

Where and when  production, consumption and exchange happen

Based on the protection of existing marketplaces and captivity of customers, suppliers and regulators

Based on the creation of new marketplaces on the basis of real needs

What is produced, consumed and exchanged

Goods and services with minor or imaginary differences that people can be persuaded are important

Products and services that make a meaningful difference in peoples lives

It should be noted that Haque’s formulation is based on a detailed study of fifteen established enterprises that have adopted one or more of the new elements -  ‘cornerstones’ as he calls them - compared with a matched control group that have not adopted any of these new approaches.

A Little Balance

I do believe that we have little choice but to pursue change in the hope of averting disaster.  And our best prospect of achieving this is, in my view, to balance the effort we put into scientific and technical innovation with equal attention paid to social innovation. 

According to the definition provided by the Centre for Social Innovation,

“Social Innovation refers to new ideas that resolve existing social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges for the benefit of people and planet. A true social innovation is systems-changing – it permanently alters the perceptions, behaviours and structures that previously gave rise to these challenges.”   

Though probably not the last word, the paradigm proposed by Haque may, in fact, represent just such an innovation.

No Answers Here

Clearly, this is a topic with ramifications and complicating factors that far outstrip the capacity of a simple blog post to provide any satisfying answers.

And so, rather than closing with some pithy observation and recommendations for moving forward, I will take a much less satisfying approach and close by posing some questions for business leaders and the consultants who advise them:

  • The issue of social responsibility in business has been around on the periphery for a while.  Is it on the verge of becoming main stream out of necessity?
  • If you can’t get your employees engaged in the ‘innovation’ game, could it be because they don’t approve of the purposes being pursued?    Would they respond more favourablyunder a new business paradigm that featured a greater emphasis on social responsibility?
  • Do innovation consultants have an obligation to advise their business clients that leading edge firms appear to be experimenting with and adopting a new and socially responsible paradigm?


I hope you will share your thoughts on this issue in the comments section below.

(iPod image via Ars)


Greg, you really opened the Pandora’s box on this subject. The word “innovation” typically gets confused with invention. They’re two separate beasts. And then when one tries to define what innovation means, you’re into a yawn-inducing litany of verbosely-worded descriptions of what people perceive.

I recall endless discussions around the table of the former Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology. We bureaucrats merely smiled and took copious notes.

What’s at stake for Canada is not advancing its economic standing in the global community but simply retaining it. We’ve slipped from 7th to 10th place, and based on various forecasts we’ll be lucky to remain at number 10.

To the public and the media, this subject is an excellent remedy for insomnia. However, if a nation cannot rally around the innovation imperative (setting definitions aside for the moment), then all is lost in the long-run. Innovation is the generator of national wealth, which of course supports social programs, etc.

Unfortunately, Canada and other countries that have been ignoring this looming subject will eventually pay the price. The South Koreas, Chinas, Indias, Taiwans, Indonesias, Turkeys, Israels, etc. that embrace innovation will leave us in the dust.

Canada’s media will pay attention to the issue only when it becomes a tangible problem. Then the public will ask: “Why didn’t the government do anything about it?”

By Jim Taggart on 2011/05/20

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Posted by Greg Tricklebank
Posted on May 20, 2011

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Categories: competitiveness, innovation, organizational development, process improvement, productivity, strategy