You can hardly move these days without bumping into someone innovating these days. Every blogger, every gadget vendor, every tech pundit, every politician. Twitter is awash.
It’s an All Innovation, All the Time mega-festival.
No, It’s Not
Most of what’s happening isn’t that innovative. It’s incremental improvements that are largely obvious, but still good and useful. Nothing wrong with that.
And sure, doing anything even slightly new can be lumped under the catchall term ‘innovation’ if you want to. It’s a very shiny bandwagon, so why not jump on? You’re totally a unique and innovative slowflake. Just like everyone else.
More insidious is the pointless re-implementation of existing ideas, but in New Fashion Colours! and calling that innovation.
So you’ve discovered Karl Marx or Ayn Rand? Wow. No, I’m sure no one has ever though of applying those ideas to how people live their lives today. Yeah, you should totally start a blog about that.
Spare me your derivative Manifesto, Mission Statement, Vision or Information Product (How To Twitter Your Way to Total Happiness, available for a strictly limited time at the low, low price of just $97!)
The Infection Spreads
This culture of the Perpetual New has infiltrated even the most conservative of public institutions. What were once staid and traditional places (politics, banking and finance) are now seemingly overrun with innovation pundits.
Derivatives caused us all kinds of problems. We need better, faster derivatives! We have the technology, we can rebuild the world economy!
Doing things well using the stuff we have is old hat. We need to be New! Vibrant! Exciting!
What new piece of software can we buy to solve all our problems? What about Silver Bullet 2.0?
If I wear this new dress, maybe my customers will like me again?
The Focus is Wrong
Now you might be thinking that I’m becoming a neo-Luddite (my contribution to innovation. You heard it here first!). Maybe, maybe not.
I’m a big fan of purposeful change. I think getting rid of old, broken things in favour of new, working things is great. I want things to be improved upon. I want things to suck less.
That’s not what’s happening.
My issue is the neglect of things that were working quite decently until they started to get ignored. Things require maintenance, and when you neglect them because you’re spending all your time on building new things, the old things start to fall apart.
The fixation with newness is causing resources that used to be spent on maintenance to be spent instead on New Shiny things for no good reason other than that they’re new and shiny.
And then people act surprised when the old stuff stops working properly. But hey, that gives me an idea! An innovative idea!
Why not just throw out the old stuff that’s breaking and replace it with this shiny new stuff!?
What could possibly go wrong?
Shoulders of Giants
Here’s what the smart people are doing. Quietly, because that’s their style. You won’t hear about this in the papers, because it’s not New and Exciting:
They’re using the stuff they already have!
The smart folks look at the problem they need to solve, and they first try to use the stuff they already have to solve that problem. If they can, great, problem solved. Total cost: $0.
Maybe they need to change the way they use the stuff they already have a little. A bit of tweaking, problem solved. Total cost: $tiny
Maybe they have most of the solution, and an upgrade here, an extra part there, and bam! Problem solved. Total cost: $small
They don’t look at a problem and immediately decide that they need to completely rebuild the whole factory for total cost: $bignum without first seeing if there’s a way to reuse what they’ve already paid for.
Sure, it’s not as exciting. It may not look as dramatic on your CV. But it works, it’s faster, and it’s cheaper. And then you have a bunch of free time and cash to spend on being really, truly innovative. And you’re still making money from the job you were supposed to be doing all along.
If you’re competing with the smart folks, and you’re spending $bignum while they spend $small to solve the same problems, who’s being the most innovative, do you think?
Here’s a hint: It isn’t you.