A false god: innovation isn’t as mystical as it seems

Innovation is one of those business disciplines we tend to mythologise to a great degree. We look upon those who get it right in a big way, like Apple or Tesla or Ashley Madison as sorts of wunderkinds; magicians or alchemists transforming ordinary perceptions of markets into precious game-changing ideas. And it’s a mythology that’s easy to have support for when you look at how poor the success rate for innovation is generally. Even a company with a serious track record in the space, such as P&G, spent the early 2000s running at a 15 percent ‘success’ rate.

But it is also a mythology that runs counter to what we know about people and how their brains actually work. We are essentially wired to seek out variety. When confronted with novel situations or stimuli, our midbrain lights up with activity and floods us with dopamine, encouraging us to investigate further in order to find reward. Anyone who’s spent all night watching Game of Thrones or Mr Robot knows what I’m talking about: the introduction of something novel at the end of a chapter that leaves you with that desire for more. It probably also helps explain the success of Ashley Madison.
What this implies is that rather than innovation being a ‘one in a million’ success, created by rogue geniuses in dark rooms, it should really be an everyday success factor for businesses. It should be the case that you actually have to work pretty hard to get it wrong. It ought to be something people are waiting to embrace.

So how come they don’t? How come so many ideas fail? Is it because only certain maverick geniuses can crack the code, or is it that most companies are going about it in the wrong way, failing to make good on the variety-seeking nature of people?

Well, it’s probably a bit of both really. The really successful businesses in the innovation space, the ones that have the game-changing idea, often have at the helm a leader with a very strong view on a market or category. They see something that others don’t, look at things from a different perspective and there is no doubting that this adds a huge amount to the case for success. 

But it is also a space businesses often get wrong. Routinely, we either ignore the end user and innovate from within, creating ideas in search of a market, or we involve the end user too directly, seeking their council directly and literally, testing ideas and ignoring the fact that people have very limited direct insight into what really makes them behave the way they do. In both cases, what comes out the end is unlikely to play to what the market wants.

But there are ways we can get insight into what will work in a category and which direction to innovate in to achieve success. And it involves looking at what is actually happening in society and culture at a more macro level, rather than looking at the individual for insight.

Our culture changes all the time and if you look at the great innovations that the world has seen they have emerged in response to significant cultural changes. At a macro level the volume of patent applications is closely correlated to cultural change dimensions such as uncertainty vs. security, masculinity vs. femininity, individualism vs. collectivism and distance vs. proximity to sources of power. Whereas that helps explain the overall level of innovation, there is also a role for cultural trends in helping drive specific market innovation.

Cultural context plays a big role in people’s lives and it is a short step to using cultural trends as the context for innovation work. People respond to cultural currents and shifts by readjusting their view of the world and what is possible. If we use cultural themes as a context to create a structure for new product and service development, we not only get a more productive idea generation process, but we also know any ideas that emerge can be aligned with developing trends. We know people like to do what others are doing. By developing ideas that fit within a growing trend, as that trend gains momentum, people will see others adopting ideas that have originated from the same cultural shift. The thrill and risk of the new is tempered by the comfort of familiarity and reassurance of the social context of others doing the same thing.

In many ways, this cultural insight and alignment is exactly what our entrepreneurial geniuses are doing more subconsciously. They are seeing a movement in how society operates and what it values and they move with it.

We ought to rethink our idea of how innovation operates from something mystical to something very transparent. While killer execution of an idea will always be the domain of creative geniuses, the underlying space that it emerges from, the untapped well of potential, should be visible to anyone who’s clear on what’s happening in society at a broader level.

Insight, not alchemy, is what will lead us to success.

This story originally appeared in the November/December edition of NZ Marketing.
Andrew Lewis is managing director of TRA. [email protected] 

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