Why Innovation is Hard

So innovation is this super important thing, right? Without it, we wouldn’t have microwaves or modern medicine; we’d still be living in a world where we have to use our hands to flip a physical switch to turn on the lights. Almost 80% of CEOs say innovation is key to the growth of their companies. But with all of our hopes of future profit and driverless commutes, there’s just one problem: innovation is hard — like really, really hard. In fact, CEOs also consistently cite innovation as one of the greatest challenges facing their businesses. So what’s going on here? Why is coming up with new things so dang hard?

Industrial Education

Have you ever wondered why you never had an innovation class in school? The powers that be decided you had time enough to learn quite a bit of history and biology and even art if you were lucky. Heck, my freshman year of high school I even learned about Latin puns. But innovation? Not so much.

In his famous TED talk entitled “Do schools kill creativity?” Sir Ken Robinson reminds us that our education system was built for the industrial age. Industrialism was founded on the core principles of conformity, compliance, linear processes, and division of labor.

content_%2F%2Fcom.google.android.apps.bigtop%2Fattachments%2Fdownloads%2F3d6867307922ec07cb6ce89bba13f453%2Fattachments%2Fd_0_0_d119a906_6619d760_17cbe56e_0bda9cd3_7204f561%2FChairs.pngPhoto by Jonas Jacobsson via Unsplash

Society needed droves of uniform, competent, and compliant people to fulfill the multitude of manual labor jobs, while only needing a few to become college graduates and perform in higher cognitive roles. In effect, this division of labor created an extremely linear educational path. You study basic overall subjects, and if you do well, you move on to the next level in a particular field. To ensure people conformed to the system, those in power set up an elaborate system of standardization with oh-so-fun tests, like the SATs, to judge how everyone is performing. This is what Ken Robinson calls an “SAT-ocracy” in which we are treating humans like different products on an assembly line. Those who don’t meet the the standards are discarded, and those who meet our qualifications are sold for labor.

The times, however, have changed. While the industrial education systems has been effective in educating billions worldwide, an education based on rote memorization of facts is becoming increasingly useless in a world where we all have the power of Wikipedia in our pockets. We’ve all spent weeks of our education learning things like the quadratic formula, but never one quiz on how to be innovative. No wonder we don’t know how to do it.

The Innovation Myth

It turns out industrialism isn’t the only culprit. One of the reasons no one ever taught you how to innovate is that they don’t believe you can do it. Why not, you ask? Well, the answer is something called the Innovation Myth.

The Innovation Myth is the common belief that only a few very special people are fortunate enough to have been born with the ability to innovate.

content_%2F%2Fcom.google.android.apps.bigtop%2Fattachments%2Fdownloads%2F3d6867307922ec07cb6ce89bba13f453%2Fattachments%2Fd_0_0_4c738d03_4a738556_fb880c26_3ba6f1ea_ee9fde5f%2FSteveJobs.pngPhoto by Segagman via Flickr

And if only a tiny fraction of people have the ability to innovate, why even bother trying to teach it to everyone? Of course, this Innovation Myth is simply not true.

This isn’t Star Wars where only select few are been born with the power of the Force. In our galaxy, we are all born with the power to innovate.

And yet the myth persists.

Unfortunately, this misconception has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck, psychologists at Columbia University, have shown that when a person doesn’t believe they are capable of completing a task, they end up performing much worse on that task. This means that most people, because they have been told that they can’t innovate, are actually worse at it. In the course of developing this blog, we can’t tell you how many conversations we’ve had with people who say, “Well I’m just not creative. I could never learn how to innovate.”

Sadly, very few people trying to unravel the Innovation Myth. Jonah Lehrer’s book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, reveals a shocking statistic: “The daunting nature of [creativity has] led researchers to mostly neglect it. A recent survey of psychology papers published between 1950 and 2000 revealed that less than 1 percent(!) of them investigated aspects of the creative process.” By not studying innovation, we’ve rendered it impossible to teach.

Screenshot 2017-11-22 at 3.06.13 PM

The Devil You Know

Going after something new is always tough. It’s easier to stick with the devil you know than take a chance on the one you don’t. Unfortunately, this is even more true in the context of an organization. Sure, CEOs know that in the 21st century economy, innovation is the key to success, but their organizations are built on structures stuck in the Industrial Age.

In the last two centuries, the primary method an organization had to stave off competition and achieve sustainable success was to reach scale. Once you were big enough and had enough existing customers, it was damn hard for a competitor to come in and knock you out. Because you produced such large quantities, you were able to offer your product at extremely cheap prices. No new startup could offer something at that price and hope to turn a profit. And it’s not just that your production process was big; you had achieved operational efficiency — the perfect balance of lean and complex. You effectively managed throngs of international suppliers so that each part of your operation was conducted at as low a cost as possible. It would take years for a new upstart to develop the international relationships and physical infrastructure necessary to compete with that! This was the strategy that put a Blockbuster on nearly every corner and put local movie rental stores out of business. Of course, in today’s world of software and cloud infrastructure those advantages mean nothing. Startups like Netflix can go from zero to billion-dollar valuations practically overnight.

Despite the new reality of the 21st century, most organizations are stuck in a 19th century mindset. Managers in charge of funding innovations face the same pressures to funnel resources towards existing lines of business that can maximize short-term shareholder value rather than take a risky bet on innovation. They have every incentive to take the potential budget for an innovation project and instead funnel it into producing an extra hundred widgets that sell at a higher margin. The result is a focus on stability, doing the same things more and more efficiently, never taking time to explore uncertain potential.

For organizations whose (perceived) success depends on the status quo, the prospect of rapid change is scary. Even when faced with the new reality of an innovation-driven economy, most choose to stick with the devil they know.

content_%2F%2Fcom.google.android.apps.bigtop%2Fattachments%2Fdownloads%2F3d6867307922ec07cb6ce89bba13f453%2Fattachments%2Fd_0_0_f984f0af_bbfa0ba9_45fba243_1f8abf42_1fc7bbce%2FPathForward.pngPhoto by John Towner via Unsplash

The Path Forward

Innovation is hard, and the deck is stacked against us. From the days of our early education to the veneration of “genius” innovators to terribly out-of-date corporate structures, no one is making this easy for us would-be innovators. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We need to develop an easy-to-understand framework for innovation, one that we can all learn, no matter where we are in our careers or education. With a skill like that, there’s nothing we can’t achieve.

Look for more posts from us soon on crafting such a framework, but in the meantime, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below. What are your struggles with innovation? What do you think is important for a framework for successful innovation?

Published by Ben Haefele

Product Designer. Innovator. Aspiring Ping-Pong Master.

One thought on “Why Innovation is Hard”

Leave a Reply