Innovative is not the same as useful

heathrobinsonI recently found this on my Twitterfeed: @jakebrewer: Yes! Note from newly devised Hippocratic oath for Gov 2.0 apps: “Don’t confuse novelty with usefulness.”  It is so true – and that comes from someone who spent part of his MBA working on the management of creativity and innovation.  There is a science fiction story by Arthur C Clarke in which two planetary empires are fighting a war.  The story’s called ‘Superiority’ for anyone who wants to read it.  In this tale, one side decides to win the war by making of use of it’s technological know-how, which is in advance of the opposing side.  Unfortunately, each innovation has some unforeseen side effect which eventually, cumulatively, ends up with the technologically advanced empire innovating itself in to defeat.

First of all, a definition.  For the purposes of this post, innovation is not the small improvements we all do to streamline and ‘finesse’ a process or product.  That’s just maintenance and responding to feedback.  Innovation is the equivalent of trading in the bike for a car.  It’s a big shift.

Innovation is an important aspect of our personal and business lives; through it we have a vital tool for adaptation and survival, but it’s important to not get hooked on the idea that innovation is always a Good Thing, and fetishise it as being an all powerful tool for all problems.  In fact:

  1. Innovation is not always useful.
  2. Innovation is not always indicative of progress.
  3. Innovation does not always benefit all the stakeholders.
  4. Failure to innovate can be expensive and risky; innovating for no reason can also be expensive and risky.
  5. Innovating is not the same as being effective.
  6. Innovation can deliver false confidence.


Innovation is not always useful

This usually equates to ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.  If you have part of your life or business process that is chugging along well and is meeting the targets you set for it, then don’t bother innovating it yet.  There is no purpose or use to massive change that meets no need.  Such innovation is useless.

Innovation is not always indicative of progress

‘Progress’ is one of those words that falls in to the category of ‘hard to define but we all know what it is’.   You may think that you have to innovate to stay cutting edge; but do you?  Sure, we have to be aware of where our market is going, and risks to our future revenue streams.  But innovating to stay on the bleeding edge of technical and social change is likely to expose you to risk.  Progress for your business or life does not always reflect social or technological ‘progress’.  Innovating purely to keep up with trends is ‘running the Red Queen’s Race’ – you will never finish.

Innovation does not always benefit all stakeholders

Innovation may be great for you, but not great for people whose incomes are affected, whose role is removed and whose job in the organisation is no longer needed.  When you innovate, bear this in mind and don’t automatically expect everyone to be pleased they belong to an innovative organisation.

Failure to innovate can be expensive…as can innovating!

Innovation always costs time and perhaps money, especially if done properly.  There is no such thing as free innovation, even if the cost is in terms of the time taken to make sure your innovation won’t break what’s already happening.  It’s easier to keep existing customers than to create new ones.  An innovative approach may scare existing customers away, and not get new replacements.  Be prepared. 

Innovating is not the same as being effective

I see a lot of people in software engineering spending inordinate amounts of time on new processes, new languages and techniques who don’t seem to always be hitting the market with product.  Don’t mistake skilling up with the latest languages and software design techniques as being effective.  It’s only effective if you put the techniques to use.  I have several clients who make a good living, thank you very much, on maintaining and providing applications that are based on 10 year old technology.

Innovation can deliver false confidence

The German Enigma code machine in World War 2 was a highly advanced and innovative piece of kit for the time.  If used correctly it would have been unbreakable.  However, the operators tended to use slightly dodgy procedures in operating it and that gave the British code-breakers at Bletchley Park an ‘in’ to the machine that they were able to exploit and hence read German secret messages.  Even when the Germans did suspect that someone had broken ‘Enigma’ they were so confident in their technologically advanced machine that they thought it impossible.

Enough said.

I’m not saying don’t innovate; that would be ridiculous.  Just think about your innovations and don’t automatically follow the ‘innovate or die’ mantra.  Take time out and read ‘Superiority’ and learn from it.

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