How Innovation Really Happens
At both the organizational and team levels, we seek out creative ideas that will result in innovation. There are a number of models for how to convert an idea into a successful innovation, but popular theories of how innovation happens are actually wrong. There is more to innovation than just great ideas—and there is more to success than innovation.
While we often have an image of innovative products arising directly from really good ideas, that really isn’t accurate. The creation of ideas is closer to 10 percent of the work, with the bulk being related to fostering adoption, which can be challenging.
In their paper “The Profession of IT: Why Our Theories of Innovation Fail Us,” Peter J. Denning and Nicholas Dew use the example of how Bob Metcalfe shepherded the idea of Ethernet from an idea to a business innovation that is essential to how we work and live today. They explain that the most common models of innovation have little relation to reality; the innovation process does start with an idea, but the important part is after that, when the idea is processed, filtered, spread, and nurtured.
The reasons the models are wrong, according to Denning and Dew, is that they are retrospective, they are oversimplified, and they assume that all innovations start with an individual’s single idea rather than emerging from community collaboration. Innovation is not as simple as applying a process to develop an idea, and the person who comes up with the idea is rarely then one who cultivates it into anything beneficial.
Denning and Dew suggest that a better model is one of development: “Emergence of a new practice begins when someone makes a proposal to combine existing practices in a new way to meet an unmet concern.“ This is not as exciting as the other models that people tend to believe, but it seems to match how I have seen new ideas being adopted.
Consequently, innovation may not even be the most important path to success. Refactoring and adhering to what Bob Martin refers to as the Boy Scout Rule are more likely to help a team be successful than focusing on new ideas. The fact that they can also let you have more time for collecting ideas and innovating is just a useful side effect.
As Issac Newton said, great ideas are often realized by standing on the shoulders of giants. Sitting around and trying to think up that one idea that can improve on a process and start a revolution isn’t the best use of your time. Instead, focus on continuous improvement and collaborating with your team, and let the ideas and innovation happen organically.