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Musings about the conversations that emerge when everyone and everything is talking.

The Myth of the Brand New Innovation Myth

A version of this article also appears on FastCoDesign.

One could argue that Steve Jobs’ prominence in the collective imagination of what a truly innovative business leader should think, say, and do has only strengthened exponentially after his recent demise. As it often happens in the case of similarly influential, seminal figures, the hard recollection of facts and of “what really happened” gets quickly out-shined by references to memorable, albeit often anecdotal, events in that person's life. These are the stories that tend to be told again and again until they take on the aura of myths, and as even the modern Greeks can easily attest most human beings tend to embrace myths, especially when they come wrapped in compelling narratives involving a hero.

Along these lines one could also argue that Jobs’ near-ubiquitous biography has been instrumental in this still ongoing “mythification” process: If you happen to work as a professional in the creative industry, countless conversations these days start with a client, a colleague, or even a friend quoting a passage from the book, and one can can come to see this state of things either as a precious conversation starter or as an unavoidable reference to someone whom you're expected to either praise or criticize.

There's no denying that the role Jobs has come to play in the field of innovation-at-large is usually associated with the term “genius”—and I largely agree with this value statement—but what I’m interested in is how Jobs’ role in the high-tech industry fits with the forces currently shaping the perception of where innovation comes from in a contemporary business environment, both in large corporations and in small start-ups.

Are innovation and creativity the material of über-talented individuals working in splendid isolation, or are they the result of a team effort, even when well-orchestrated by a conductor?

The motivation for the reflections that follow relates to the slowly-building backlash against the current widespread industry notion that today's innovative businesses need to be structured around a shared vision, cross-disciplinary group collaboration, and a deep understanding of the intended end-users of their products or services.

Distributed evidence for this apparent innovation "pendulum swing" can be found in recent articles, including "Groupthink" by Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker and “The Rise of the New Groupthink”, by Susan Cain in the New York Times. Lehrer takes the position that brainstorming is useless, while Cain posits that the current obsession with collaboration and “groupthink” needs to be rebalanced in light of evidence highlighting the key role that lone and often introverted thinkers and inventors have played in major recent and not-so-recent breakthrough innovations.

I cannot but associate these considerations with those that have fueled recursive debates around the role user research plays in driving truly disruptive rather than incremental innovation. For example, after the publication of his book Design-Driven Innovation, economist Roberto Verganti posted various reflections on the Harvard Business Review website, questioning the role and sustainability of so-called user-driven innovation.  

In a recent-past-that-feels-like-ages-ago, these opposing visions of the world used to pitch Sony against Nokia, with Sony usually representing the “creating desire and demand” camp, and Nokia typically getting associated with the user-centered approach. Most recently, Apple has replaced Sony in flying the flag of “people don't really know what they will love until we show it to them” (this quote being my own anecdotal contribution to the Myth of Jobs), and Nokia's slot has arguably been filled by companies like Google with its data driven decision-making process, or Facebook and Twitter, both of which constantly evolve their services around customer feedback or manifest behavior.

So, what gives?

Is innovation the result of the prophetic reflections of lone, introverted, self-centered, creative geniuses, or instead the fruit of the collaboration of a group of talented contributors working together to shape a collective shared vision?

Are radically innovative (and successful) products and services the result of disruptive technologies and effective marketing acumen aimed at generating desire, or should markets and technological innovation eminently follow what people want, need, dream of, or aspire to, whether those desires are consciously expressed or need to be uncovered using insight-generating research techniques?

 As a designer I think the answer is yes.

That’s because I don’t think there is an archetypal, simplistic image of what type of personality or process best fosters innovative thinking, or even what type of physical working environment can best support a creative culture. That view of the world is too polarized. In my experience there is no single specific behavioral trait, methodological approach, or carefully-selected set of contextual factors that guarantees success in the ability to think differently and translate that thinking into success in the market.

That said, there is indeed a common trait in the typical way creative thinkers approach challenges: they can comfortably hold opposing thoughts in their heads and get to work. At times, this trait can be misconstrued as “the magic of creativity” and especially in the design field I frown when I hear that label because it reveals a preconception that designers are industrial artists that purely rely on their intuition to give shape to their solutions. Not so. The truth is that designers often confidently leap off an unstable conceptual platform with the apparent confidence that the resulting oxymoronic cognitive springboard will not just overlook an empty pool and a hard landing.

Informed intuition. Controlled chaos. Abductive analysis. This is often the mindset of successful creative, innovative thinkers: seeing opposites and apparently contradicting goals not just as a potential for dissonance, but as an opportunity for dynamic harmony.

To paraphrase one of Walt Whitman's most famous verses “creative thinkers are vast, they contain multitudes”: creativity is inherently inclusive.

I will quickly also add that this ability applies to all creative thinkers, whether they are indeed designers, artists, technologists, engineers or economists, and however they might be labeled as, CEO, CMO, CTO, CCO or ABCDO.

Ok, so what now? The truth does not lie in the extremes, and definitely also not in the middle. The truth lies in harnessing the positive tension between the extremes, and fine-tuning it until it resonates with what current technologies can enable and with what intended consumers and end-users are ready to adopt in a given socio-cultural economic context.

Think of all the vectors that typically influence bringing a truly innovative product or service to market, and imagine them individually stretched amidst the opposing constraints that often define their conceptual and practical boundaries (time to market, development cycles, user experience, technical feasibility, branding, business models, just to name a few). Now imagine all these vectors as taut guitar strings, one alongside the other. Imagine fine-tuning each string so that it's in harmony with all the other ones when they are strummed together. Imagine this being not a one-off task, but a near-continuous activity that a talented musician needs to constantly perform as he or she is playing, not before.

Seeing an opportunity, a challenge, human beings, or the world as a whole, as multi-faceted systems that can only be approached in their full complexity: this syncretic way of thinking applies not just to the input, but also to the social and environmental context, and to the tools, process, and output of the work of creative individuals and groups.

From this conceptual standpoint, seeing brainstorming in opposition to solitary thinking, or user research as antithetical to disruptive innovation feels simply off the mark. These apparently opposing approaches are actually complementary, and effective innovators already use them as such, picking the right mind-frame and the accompanying tools and methodologies according to the specificities of the challenge at hand.

This holistic way of thinking and working is the trademark of places like the one I happen to be lucky enough to work in.

These are places where the physical working context combines an open-plan with project rooms of various sizes to support small group collaboration or individual focus, with plenty of highly transparent, portable cubicles most of my colleagues tend to refer to as “headphones”. They are environments where people can also comfortably work from home or from whatever concentration-inducing environment they prefer when they'd rather work alone uninterrupted. They supply a context in which an office is often not defined by walls surrounding an enclosed space, but happens to be the place where people live, work, and use the products and services we give shape to.

 Also, these are places that are characterized by a highly collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and multicultural environment that encourages and often simply requires group collaboration because of the multifaceted complexity of the problems that need to be tackled. A context that at the same time expects every single team member to bring a strong individual point of view to an opportunity, a point of view fueled and sustained by personal passions and deep vertical knowledge.

 These are places where a highly flexible process associates moments of deep immersion in the complex world of the people we shape solutions for, combined and interspersed with periods where rich stimuli are processed and interpreted to generate insights that inform the creative process without analytically prescribing mechanistic solutions.

Finally, these are places where effective ideation methodologies combine high-intensity collaborative workshops and workgroups, interspersed with slower moments of synthesis and evaluation, in groups or alone, integrating internal and external expertise, welcoming end-users as active participants to the creative process while still expecting team leaders to be the advocates and owners of a clear and well-communicated holistic vision.

Positing that the intuition of a visionary genius or the introduction of a disruptive technology are best poised to lead to radical innovation is simply a misleading construct, if postulated in absolute terms.

Maybe Jobs or Wozniak were such visionary geniuses working in uninterrupted solitary isolation … when they weren't busy working crazy-long hours with the rest of their über-talented crews, in a part of the world that's still today considered the cultural cradle of high-tech innovation.

The answer lies in harnessing the positive tensions that naturally build when any existing social or cultural paradigm can be challenged by the introduction of innovative ideas, products, or services. Without a profound understanding of what people will be ready and willing to introduce into their lives, even brilliant products have regularly failed on markets not mature enough to digest their full potential. Harnessing these tensions is in itself an art that only a group of talented individuals have proven to be capable of mastering.

 

Fabio Sergio is Executive Creative Director at frog. He leads frog's global Experience Strategy practice, and is one of frog's Healthcare experts. He's happiest where design, technology and (social) connectivity intersect, wrapping business scenarios around people's needs, desires and dreams to create meaningful solutions that foster change. At frog he has led innovation programs for Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, BBC, HP, LGE, Vodafone, Swisscom, WEF and Unicef, amongst others. He is an adjunct professor at the Politecnico di Milano.