The craze for "innovation" seems insatiable. Blog posts, interviews, books, magazine articles – "Innovation" is an even hotter buzzword than "disruption." On Amazon.com, a search for "innovation" among technology books returns 2,654 results of various kinds.
What is innovation's role in the evolution of institutional advancement?
Here are two thoughts to consider:
1. Innovation isn't about technology
Most observers equate "innovation" with "applying technology." But innovating simply means being inventive and creative in problem-solving.
Technology is one outcome of innovation, not a necessary ingredient. Sometimes innovation delivers new ways of doing things that have absolutely nothing to do with technology. For example, changing your staff structure or board recruitment process doesn't require technology, but can incorporate innovative ideas.
The Economist says it this way:
"Innovation and technology, though talked of almost interchangeably, are not the same thing. Innovation is what people newly know how to do. Technology is what they are actually doing..."
[We don't need an app, a web page, or a device
to improve our effectiveness]
Or more succinctly, as design executive Kelsey Ruger puts it:
"[W]hen it comes to innovation, technology is an artifact."
In other words, new technologies are one outcome of some innovative processes. Not all innovation involves technology, either as an enabler or as a result.
The relationship between innovation and technology is probably more cyclical than these linear descriptions suggest. But the larger point is:
We usually don't need an app, a fancier web page, or a device to improve our effectiveness.
2. Innovation's impact is generally over-rated
Innovation matters, because without new ideas, we just copy something that others have been doing for years – and our programs stop evolving and improving. They become unresponsive to new needs and to new opportunities. Risk-taking leads to discovery, which drives continual improvement.
In reality, though, almost all change in our well-established field is incremental. Evolution, not revolution, delivers the majority of the improvement.
[It's rare that an innovation has widespread impact]
In short, it's very rare that an innovation has widespread impact. Most innovation is barely noticeable.
Most, but not all. So of course, we still need to pursue change and hunt for improvements that will make a big improvement in effectiveness, however we measure it.
But relentlessly focusing on the revolutionary importance of innovation may undersell the cumulative impact of the many small, and otherwise unremarkable improvements that make us better, more relevant, and more effective.