Going Beyond the Revolution — The Pursuit of True Innovation
Human Nagafi

Human Nagafi

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon Tom Goodwin’s article on what innovation is really about and why most companies and people probably don’t want innovation. Tom’s words resonate with my experiences as a consultant like no words ever did before — the challenges Tom mentions are exactly my motivation to enter the daily struggle of pursuing TRUE innovation.

Don’t believe the Hype!

As a matter of fact, I rarely use the word innovation. When I do use it, I make sure to add “true” as a prefix to distinguish my understanding of innovation from the buzzword. As someone who seeks to understand its fabric and need, this very term is sacred to me. Yet five minutes into reading my LinkedIn feeds, I see the word innovation popping up all over the place. Everything is innovation, innovation is everywhere, and everyone can do innovation.

Since “Digital [ANY KEYWORD]” is the hot topic in business, keywords such as technologytransformationstartupscaleagileappdesign, and disruptionare all overused by companies and media alike to catch people’s attention. Furthermore, we talk about digital talentsdigital strategydigital culturedigital leadership, and digital organization as if they are some nirvana we need to achieve.

It seems like we now live in a pretentious, exclusive, elitist bubble where we are obligated to know the latest emerging technology, the latest billion-dollar valuation of a startup, and the next venture of Elon Musk, or otherwise we belong in the basket of deplorables. It’s herd mentality. We are insecure and we don’t want to miss out. So we attend all the innovation summits, digital transformation conferences, and startup pitch events to boost our ego. We convince ourselves that we see what others don’t, and we will be the next unicorn that disrupts the entire industry if we add blockchain to the process, utilize AI and IoT capabilities, be more user-centric, focus on agility, and adopt a freemium business model.

Writing this reminds me of Donald Trump’s famous quote: “I am very highly educated. I know words. I have the best words.” We do have the best buzzwords today. We are so influenced by the media that we subconsciously become part of the media, involuntarily spitting out the “best words”.

Fun fact: you don’t understand medicine just by binge watching Dr. House over the weekend. You don’t become an IoT engineer without ever tinkering with Raspberry Pi. You don’t become a blockchain expert by watching TED talks on YouTube. And you definitely don’t understand true innovation just because you have used post-its during a design thinking workshop. The real experts in these buzzfields use these words carefully because they know the potentials and limits of the respective field and wish not to contribute to the hype.

We all end up Dead, it’s just a question of how and why

“We all end up dead, it’s just a question of how and why” — Braveheart

Innovation starts with a mindset and an attitude. Innovation requires a specific type of personality because “innovation is horribly painful, deeply disturbing and massively disruptive. It’s an ugly process, messy, awkward, rude, counterintuitive. If it’s not making you feel a lot of things it’s not innovation.” No matter which innovation theory we learned in the ivory tower, none will help us if we don’t have the right attitude to face the fierce punches hitting us in the course of our pursuit for true innovation. Instead of understanding the fundamentals of innovation or why we sense the urgency to innovate in the first place, we are blinded by vanity and hide ourselves in hypocrisy. While we are all busy building fancy digital centers and hubs “to celebrate the theatrical act of innovation”, many of us forget to carry the perseverance or to put in the sweat and tears that could lead to real change. Innovation is about changing structures and changing the way people think. Instead innovation is more a showbiz now.

But change is more necessary than ever before because we cannot deny the fact that our economic belief system is changing. After a century of simplifying our complex world by crafting management principles and designing organizations to possess resources, to reduce transactions costs, and to manage behavior, we use digital technology to make business complex again by commoditizing resources (making transaction costs almost obsolete) and by making resources accessible.

Remember the opening line from Tom’s article The Battle Is For The Customer Interface: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.” The shift is taking place right now.

We are moving away from a resource economy to an access economy. This is a fundamental change as it represents a shift of power in our system. At this critical stage, every company has a choice: They can be the innovators, they can be the followers, or they can be out of business. It is as if we are back in 1789 as the crowd stormed to the Bastille. The current resource economy is the Bastille, and the revolution for access economy has begun.

Ready for Battle?

But as innovators, we should not just think about the revolution. Be aware that we cannot solve our challenges with the same old way of thinking that caused these challenges in the first place. Hence we need to think beyond the revolution. It is not simply about what the best ways are to prepare for the imminent change, but, more importantly, about how companies can become creators of change.

If you think that you can survive this fundamental system shift merely with resources and market dominance, then you are prone to vulnerability and disadvantage as there is a group of entrepreneurs out there who have access to resources, who do not play by the current theatrical innovation game, and who will replace your company. Sooner or later, your competitors and other market incumbents will understand that the next competitive advantage is not market, costs, or product but an attitude of organization. Then there will be no more space for the theater of innovation as real transformations will force you out of business.

Going beyond hypocrisy in the new business world, I would recommend business professionals on top and at the bottom three “simple” steps to start with:

  1. 1. Don’t Talk about it, be about it: Do not be complacent with the buzz. Think deep and understand the fundamentals of the change we are facing today.
  2. 2. What’s your why?: Why are you pursuing this goal? Why is this change important for your team, project, and company? Understand that transforming a company starts with transforming yourself. At a certain point you will have setbacks, and only with a clear purpose will you be able to overcome the difficulties and master the change.
  3. 3. It takes complexity to defeat complexity: Realize that the (mainstream) management principles are designed for a system which is focused on simplifying complexity by planning, monitoring, and controlling resources and behaviors. If we want to be creator of the change, we need to create complexity again.

These steps will guide you and prepare you for the hard part of innovation: Going out to the arena and change business models, culture, the way we work, and the way we think about our roles in organizations and societies. Finally, be honest with yourself. Do you want to change your company and put in the hard work or do you just want a short-lived theatrical buzz?

I am Human, Partner at 1789 — Beyond Revolution, a strategic consultancy with a focus on helping organizations create new structures and empowering teams. Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts? Do you want to share your story? Please leave a comment below!

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