Fostering innovation

Posted on April 26, 2007


I’ve been thinking a lot about innovation since the Mweb conference. In fact, now I focus on it as a concept, I think I’ve been thinking about what it means and how you do it for considerably longer – probably since I started dabbling in this whole technology thing.

A lot has been written about what innovation is and whether it’s important. I had a discussion with my wife the other night about the difference between creativity and innovation. As someone who pretends he has faint vestiges of a classical education (in reality, two weeks of Latin when I was about 12), I assumed at the time that the ‘nova’ bit has something to do with being new. Turns out I was right, which is always nice. The official definition is “The act of introducing something new.”

What I’m interested in is whether there are any specific ways of helping to foster innovation, or particular agreements about the best approaches to it from an organisational perspective. How do you go about increasing innovation and innovative approaches in an organization which has many conservative roots? How can you (or can you, at all?) persuade your IT department, who are – rightly – focused on security and resilience, to set off down a path which is new, untested, may fail? How do you help teams begin to focus on R&D when they’ve got an in-box full of the usual day-to-day stuff?

Googling about “fostering innovation” chucks up some interesting articles. There’s one on (with some REALLY ANNOYING interstitial ads – get to the print version without them here) which looks at the tensions and synergies between environments and process. It asks: can innovation thrive within a process framework? Or are the two mutually exclusive?

I’d probably turn to my grandparents for an answer to this. Not because they’re particularly good at technology (although my grandfather was a pretty nifty hand surgeon in his day) but because they always had a very defined (possibly slightly OCD..) structure to their lives. As a kid it seemed kind of stifling visiting them and always getting up at the same time, having a sleep after lunch, mid-afternoon walk, etc., but looking back I can see that with a structure in place you free up time around the structure to do the interesting stuff. The alternative – a kind of time-space-anarchy – which would on first glance appear to be freer and more flexible – is, I would argue, likely to prevent the emergence of true creativity and innovation. You’d spend all your time trying to mesh together the things that need doing with the innovative things that you just wanted to fiddle with, and probably end up doing neither particularly well.