Innovation as we know it is dead!

22 May 2013

Haydn Shaughnessy

Haydn Shaughnessy

Columnist and Expert on Innovation

InnovationInnovation is often equated with creativity. It should be equated more with change and with good decision making. Boring old decisions!

However, over the past decade the notion that innovation is really about creativity has paralyzed a lot of good companies. It sets up innovation as something alien. And the techniques of open innovation, designed to generate ideas and excitement to fuel this view of innovation, are creating a management overhead.

We need to think more about innovation in the context of good decision making. The context for decisions is "change", the very sudden need to transform enterprises. Within this context we need good judgment and great decisions. Let me give a small example of open innovation going awry.

In 2009 I was working with the Symbian Foundation to create an open management culture. Symbian is/was the operating system of Nokia Smartphones, and 2008/2009 was the moment when we all realized Apple had changed the game completely by designing a completely new kind of Smartphone - the iPhone.

To counter this, Nokia decided to "open source" Symbian. That means they put millions of lines of code into the public domain and created a structure that allowed independent developers to contribute to its onward development - or innovation.

As part of this, Symbian also set up an ideation platform - a now common practice - with the objective of collecting ideas from the ecosystem.

Within weeks Symbian had over 1,200 ideas on what to do differently, many of them trivial. But they all came from real people whose feelings needed to be respected. Can you imagine trying to deal with 1,200 ideas, generated by several hundred people, none of which were actually that valuable? But this type of innovation - the open, creative type - is fraught with such problems, mainly overload and, often, overload with trivia.

It stems from acceptance of open innovation as a bone fide approach to a company's problems. Open innovation has had a good run, a decade of headlines since Procter and Gamble first launched Connect and Develop - their version of open innovation. The point about Connect and Develop is that to connect with P&G you needed an idea that could radically transform a part of their business. They weren't just interested in ideas.

But the P&G way got corrupted and many companies have done what Symbian did and found themselves deluged with trivia.

The idea that innovation is about creativity needs laying to rest. Being creative is necessary but hardly sufficient for innovation. And we misunderstand creativity anyway - creative people are not simply right-brain skewed. They are people who make very good, often very opportunistic, decisions. And the context in which they make decisions is critical to their success. To do innovation well we need to understand what is changing.

Innovation is now about transforming the way we create wealth - away from traditional factor inputs such as labor, capital and raw materials; to something entirely different, the ability to attract resources, the capacity to interact with customers, the willingness to cultivate and manage ecosystems, the realization that people are no longer bounded by location, and indeed by the realization that people are not only empowered, they too are changing and growing new needs.

This new form of innovation begins with capturing trends that we might now be aware of. For example, most enterprises are now inundated with the need to make small changes - to do what I call narrow innovation.  That could be a new app (but the new app needs building for iPhone, Android, Windows) and, by the way, the app will need a different configuration for different geographies; or it could be layering different types of design onto products and services.  Or it can even be more fundamental - Samsung had eight major product launches in Q 2013 and then went on to introduce a new tablet display.

It is often about radical adjacency. For decades companies were told not to do adjacencies at all - it was a red flag for investors if a company stepped away from its focus. Now companies in software are out doing a wide variety of stuff.  Look at Google's driverless car, its mobile devices, laptops, fibre, and Project Glass, all radical adjacencies most of which are far removed from its core ads business Or it could mean creating the platforms that allow your company to automate hundreds of partnerships that scale your business very rapidly (look at Expedia's API program).

What companies today face is not the need for innovation. It is innovation in a rapidly changing context. To do that they need to focus on understanding the context and educating their people in how to make good decisions, in, dare I say it, a systematic way. But you can already sense that's a big job. The upside? It is a very vibrant, exciting journey and it is highly motivating. Your employees could enjoy the challenge. They would probably thank you for deciding it's worth it.


Haydn Shaughnessy is a leading writer on innovation whose Forbes column, Rethinking Innovation, regularly receives in excess of 750,000 monthly unique visitors and well over a million views. Haydn's perspective on innovation is drawn from his studies enterprise transformation and the role of innovation in changing the way enterprises grow.

His latest book, "The Elastic Enterprise", co-authored with Nick Vitalari, has been described as a must read for companies that want to succeed in the new era of business. It looks at how stellar companies have gone beyond innovation to a new form of wealth creation.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bluefin Solutions Ltd.

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About the author

Haydn Shaughnessy

Columnist and Expert on Innovation

Haydn Shaughnessy has been at the epicentre of innovation and transformation for 25 years, beginning with the digitization of television newsrooms, the launch of the first satellite broadcast services in Europe, through the EU's RACE program experimenting with advanced communications before broadband and mobile became widely available, and social networking software design. He is also a former partner at the first social media agency, The Conversation Group, where he helped major corporations exploit social technologies and develop new business models around Internet innovation. 

Over this time he has continued a steady output of publications based on original research that has appeared at,, GigaOm, and in the national press. He is the co-author of the book, The Elastic Enterprise, an account of how stellar companies prospered during the Great Recession, described as a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the new economy. He has worked with a succession of global companies on innovation issues including Unilever, Alcatel Lucent, and GM. He is a research fellow at the University of California Irvine, a Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and analyst with GigaOm Research. He has presented original ways of looking at innovation conferences as far afield as Sydney, San Francisco and Dubai.

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