Bruce Nussbaum, BusinessWeek’s editor and blogger on the design and innovation beat, has declared that “‘Innovation’ is Dead” and that “Transformation” is the new “key concept” of 2009.
He correctly observes that the word “innovation” is overused in the business world. This, of course, has been obvious for a long time to a great many people — in particular, I think, among practicing designers. But it’s fascinating to think about what his declaration reveals about the nature of the whole innovation craze Nussbaum helped start.
The conversations around innovation over the past few years have in large part focused on producing innovation where it does not exist. It hasn’t been about innovation itself, but rather about cultivating innovation. It’s been about transforming groups of people who, without clever and forward-thinking leadership, would utterly fail to innovate. The literature, then, is aimed at people who fancy themselves as that same clever and forward-thinking leader.
To those of us whose everyday job is to innovate — e.g., designers — the hype around “innovation” has always seemed a little weird. As if not innovating has ever been an option for a designer. We do this all the time!
So what Nussbaum and the innovation cheerleaders have been talking about all along has not been about how innovative people can be more innovative. It’s been about how to take teams that cannot or will not innovate and getting them to actually come up with new ideas. Which is why, I think, he has chosen to zoom in on “transformation” as the key word. It’s always been about change.
In fact, I would go one step further and posit that what heâ€™s really talking about is therapy. How to take a damaged or under-performing body and build it into something that works. To repair broken methodologies that produce the same-old solutions. To build up capabilities that have atrophied, or that may never have even existed.
The innovation conversation, then, usually begins with this (usually unstated) presumption of dysfunction and failure. You can probably insert a subtitle under most headlines: “How to fix your backward company”. Even Nussbaumâ€™s new â€œtransformationâ€ implies that organizations need to implement radical change just to keep up. But what about organizations who are already keeping up really well? What about organizations that are already leading the way? What relevance does â€œinnovationâ€ and â€œtransformationâ€ have to someone cruising along on the cutting edge?
Transformation is for when youâ€™re doing it wrong. Therapy is for when youâ€™re injured.
But what do you do when you want to really perform?
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Practice is what athletes and musicians and actors do constantly to stay on the top of their games. And practice is what great designers do. All day every day.
For those of us who are designers, then, the whole innovation conversation often leads us to think about the difference between practicing and managing: A great design leader may or may not practice their craft every day, any more than a great coach or choreographer needs to break a sweat every day. Whether a design leader does hands-on design work, however, isn’t as important as that design leader pushing their team to do that work. Not to talk about innovation, but to actually do design work. If your team isn’t innovating, then chances are they simply aren’t designing enough. Make them design new stuff. Make them practice.
And, of course, there’s talent. Many assume that innovation comes almost exclusively from talented people. I tend to think this way, too. But a great team is a team of great people working together. Innovative people will doubtlessly fail to innovate in the wrong environment. Managing innovation may simply boil down to leading innovative people to practice their craft more, or maybe even simply creating a space for innovative people to thrive on their own. But it most certainly is not about transforming a mediocre team into an effective hive mind.
This goes the same for organizations. You want an innovative organization? Make ’em design. All the time. Make them practice.