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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