The Curses of Innovation #29 #cong17

By Dermot Casey.

The first curse of innovation is writing a title for Eoin Kennedy called “The Curse of Innovation” without understanding what you’re going to write about.

The second curse of innovation is the concept or notion of innovation. Google tells me that there are 678,000,000 results  for the word innovation (found in about 0.52 seconds. That it is the “act or process of innovating a new method, product or idea.” It also tells me that it is a noun.  This implies that innovation is a thing. Something separate in itself. Like an apple, a hammer, a book or the Internet. And that we can separate it out. And Innovation isn’t a thing.  It isn’t. It is as much a verb. Innovation is rooted in knowledge, the application of knowledge and the generation of new knowledge. And like innovation knowledge also a verb as well as a noun form.

Knowledge is important because knowledge is social. The OED first defines knowledge as “awareness gained from experience”. Knowledge is a process or an act, it is situated in a context, the situation the experience was gained in and generally involves people and the interaction of people. “Knowledge is the uniquely human capability of making meaning from information – ideally in face to face relationship”. It is dynamic, ambiguous, tacit, analogue, and at its essence it is wholly human. 

The third curse of innovation is neglect of this soft human dimension. Because with people comes emotion, intuition and often a difficulty of quantification. Poincare referred to this when he said “it is by logic we prove, it is by intuition that we invent” It’s what economist Brian Arthur meant when he referred to the high end of science and technology as “deep craft”. If necessity is the mother of invention then insight based on depth of understanding and the process of knowing is the father of innovation. 

The fourth curse of innovation is that even the act of invention itself is often not sufficient to innovate. The MRI scanner was originally invented by EMI in the UK, who had no recognition of its importance. GE commercialised it and that development formed the basis for GE Medical Systems a division of GE with billions of dollars a year in profit. Xerox is famous for inventing the modern PC, Mouse, Windows and Ethernet and letting Apple and Microsoft commercialise it. Language shapes and limits our world. Much as the limits of our language are the limits of our world, our ability to innovate or even to recognise innovation are limited by our experiences of the world.   People generally perceive and are only receptive to what their experience has prepared them for.

We often make this mistake when we try to “be innovative”. I have a jaundiced view of the generic notion of a hackathon. Getting lots of people in a room and asking them randomly for ideas is often the antithesis of innovation. It also often hides the real innovators who often are on the edge of many domains and apply deep expertise and insight across those domains or who go deep in a very innovative way in a single domain.  I’ve worked with some pioneering people, Gavin Sheridan a former colleague at Storyful now a founder at Vizlegal being one. At Storyful he blended his insight as a journalist together with his understanding of technology to define a new way of journalism. 

I also work with founders and their companies daily. The phrase I use more than another is “do you understand your customer, do you understand what their problems are and do you have real insight into how important these problems are”.  That is the key. Forget about how you’re going to solve it for a while. If you really really understand the problem then the solution will come through engagement with that problem.  Einstein may or may not have “if I had an hour so save the world I’d spend 55 minutes understanding what the problem is and five minutes solving it” but it’s clear that a deep understanding of the problem helps to frame the solution. 

This lack of customer understanding is at the root of much product innovation failure.  In a paper I discovered when I Googled my original title of this paper called “The Curse of Innovation” the authors refer to the frequent mismatch between what developers create and what people want. “More broadly, when predicting the judgments and choices of others, the curse of knowledge suggests we are unable to ignore what we believe to be true.”  Hence we get Juicero and 3D Televisions and much else besides. A clear way to get over this problem is to figure out what people really need and want. (A poor alternative is to attempt to use marketing to persuade people what they really want is what you have).  Finding out what people want requires you to engage with people to get to know and to understand and to learn from them and their problems. 

This brings me back to Cong. Congregation in particular is a place of innovation. The title forced a constraint and forced me draw on my experience and stretch it a little to create this blogpost. It is what Congregation does. It is a place where my language grows. It is a place where my social connections grow, where diverse sets of experiences are mixed in the petri dishes of the huddles where I am challenged and my mind is broadened in many directions. It is a place where my experience grows. It is dynamic, ambiguous, tacit, analogue, and at its essence it is wholly human and wholly wonderful. It is a reminder that while there are many curses about how we think about innovation innovation is a very human blessing. 

If you want to read one thing on innovation read “The Myths of Innovation” by Steven Berkun. If you want to read one thing on information and knowledge read “The Social Life of Information” by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. If you have time and the inclination for a third try “The Tree of Knowledge” by Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varlea. 

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie