Three myths of organisational innovation

Irene Sandler talking at panel

Written by Irene Sandler, VP Cognizant Accelerator (Picture above at the Public sector Innovation Conference)

For technology sorts like me, the month of January is awash with headlines about innovation, thanks in part to the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. From robot delivery dogs and air taxis to the inexorable polyglot that is Google Assistant, we mere mortals can glimpse the future.

It’s at these times we find ourselves in conversations with our clients about the nature of innovation, how to harness it, apply it, and even, how not to “mess it up.” (We assure them that messing up is expected as part of the effort.) Often, we find ourselves facing three common myths around innovation.

Myth 1: Innovation comes as an epiphany; a flash of insight

It makes for great storytelling: Darwin and his finches, Archimedes and his bathtub, Newton and his apple. In these, the one, game-changing idea is characterised as a bolt of lightning from a cloudless sky.

In fact, ideas are a function of their environment, and they often emerge slowly into view. For instance, Darwin had five years to ponder while on the HMS Beagle, and he’d digested the work of geologist George Lyell, who noted that the earth below our feet changed according to external forces.

The implication is that organisations can create a suitable environment, where multiple ideas can recombine, where people with an array of different experiences can find new intersections and applications. And in this, the public sector has a critical role, from funding pure science efforts like CERN, to crafting that environment through hands-on efforts like Innovate UK.

Myth 2: Innovation is about original ideas

The original idea is often merely the first jumping off point to innovation. It’s both the application of the idea (the “use case”) as well as the execution of the idea that generate innovation.

Take Post-it Notes®, one of the world’s most-purchased office supply. Created by one of 3M’s in-house scientist, Spencer Silver, it was derided as a “weak adhesive” with no apparent application. But an enterprising 3M colleague noted that it outperformed scraps of paper as a page marker: more than a decade later, it was finally launched to an enthusiastic public.

As for execution, consider the early browser wars: despite the better performance and features of Netscape Navigator, Microsoft stole a march by bundling a free version of Internet Explorer with every Windows operating system, which held at that time a 90% share of the desktop market. (Frankly, neither Netscape nor Microsoft came up with the original idea: credit Tim Berners-Lee for that, and yet another public sector agency, the U.S. National Center for Supercomputing Applications, for Mosaic.)

Put simply, an idea without application and execution is a proto-innovation. And often it can take time to bear fruit: it took 450 years – and multiple breakthroughs in material science – for Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch of an “aerial screw” to become what we call today a helicopter.

For organisations without 450 years to spare between idea and execution, assembling a multi-disciplinary team can approach an idea from multiple angles to find use cases and test them quickly.

Myth 3: Innovation is about taking risks

It’s hard to think of something riskier than sending humans into space. Yet, that’s exactly what we’ve done, over and over again, to the point that manned space flights rarely make the news anymore. This happy banality is a result of de-risking all the things that could go wrong.

Astro Teller, head of Alphabet’s moonshot factory, X, notes, “we spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong” so that they can get the big ideas right. Failure is a necessary precondition of success; it exposes weaknesses so you can mitigate risk.

It comes down to structure: for example, in Cognizant Accelerator, we’ve created a rigorous, disciplined process in which curiosity, disagreement, failure, and objectivity are encouraged. We’ve found that different disciplines to yield diversity of thought, and we establish upfront the criteria by which we measure our progress.

This isn’t rocket science (well, the space program is). But managed innovation also doesn’t happen by itself — and it will look different for each organisation. The first step is to look beyond the myths and see that building an innovation function, even for massive organisations, is a lot more straightforward than it might seem.

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