The cult of innovation

IT is currently gripped by a Cult of Innovation: novelty is king; development/improvement a headlong rush into the future; only the bleeding edge survives. We ought to know better.

Innovation can be change for change's sake, especially when staff are tasked with "Be innovative". Mindless innovation for its own sake is only inherently good in a consumer commercial market driven by novelty.

There is a real issue here with IT people using their personal consumer values and experience to think about the business context. I've talked about this confusion of the personal and commercial before on this blog. The hysteria around social media is a good example of something that has a major impact on our personal lives which then generates an overhyped expectation of results in business. Likewise personal and mobile computing devices.

So the same thing happens with innovation. "Apple are innovative so innovation is a winning strategy" (Actually it is debatable whether Apple are truly innovative or just good at making existing concepts look shiny and then marketing them brilliantly: iCandy). Just because innovation is an essential strategy for consumer products doesn't mean it is essential for a tractor parts supplier or a county council or a hospital. In many organisations we could use more thinking inside the box before we worry about going outside it.

Innovation is often blindly forward looking. Innovation must not throw the baby with bathwater, it must not lose what we have built. Attempts at innovation can be downright destructive.

The power of human society is our ability to transmit knowledge between each other and from one generation to the next. Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

"[For example] we went through this with websites. Early designs ignored all that had been learned before and set us back many years in progress towards usability and understand[ability]... the most egregious failures [of design] always come from the developers of the most recent technologies"
Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things.

Truly better design can sometimes mean regression, where "better" means meeting the business requirement (need/risk/problem). Sometimes going back to past ways of doing things is the best strategy. When it comes to efficiency and effectiveness, we can learn as much from the past as from a shiny unproven future.

Finally, innovation is a distraction to most of us. Even if some innovation is required in an organisation, that doesn't mean everybody in the organisation should be rushing after it. 99% of us in IT have a prosaic day job to do, which involves keeping the company working. As I said of the Cloud:

ImageIT Management is 1% innovation and 99% perspiration. Innovation is not our day job. For the small number of IT people who are in charge of conceptualising new services or setting architectural directions, then Cloud is very exciting. In some cases it is even relevant to them.
For the rest of you, get back to work and stop looking over on that far horizon just because it looks cool - we have a business to run.
You're an undisciplined rabble of kids who run out the gate to dance shrieking around anything shiny or noisy that comes along the road. If the Cloud is coming to us, the CIO and the architects and the designers will let us know soon enough. If you wanted to play with the cool toys you should have studied harder in school.

Talk of "Innovation" has become a bizarre form of political correctness in IT: if you're not doing innovation you are failing in your duty, you are backward, you are a loser. This is dangerous rubbish. We need to concentrate on the efficiency and effectiveness of what we do for the organisation. If improving efficiency and effectiveness means introducing an innovation, good. Often it doesn't.
Avoid the Cult of Innovation.


What is continuous improvement?

I totally agree that shiny object syndrome can be a menace - I've experienced it first hand on multiple occasions.

But I don't think that it's fair to criticize innovation per se. I haven't seen a single organization that wouldn't benefit from getting more serious about continuous improvement - and what's that if not innovation? Organizations where nobody cares about trying to make things better - and where people who do try are made to feel like squeaky wheels - are miserable places to work (I've experienced that too) and equally worthy of criticism.


Oxford dictionary (one of the pillars of civilisation) says:
"a new method, idea, product"

Note "new", not "better". Innovation is not the same thing as improvement, else we wouldn't need two words.

There are many forms of improvement. One of them is to find something new. I know our industry likes to dilute the meaning of words beyond the limits of usefulness, but let's try to hang onj to "innovation" ok? It is about finding something new. And there is a suggestion of surprise about the word "innovation" as well: an unexpected something new, something left-field, creative. Businesses obsess about innovation because they want to differentiate, take the competition by surprise, get an edge, an advantage.

Sadly you can no more summon up true innovation or measure it or manage it than you can do those things to art. Flogging staff to come up with innovation is like demanding they paint a masterpiece.

JFD innovation

"Flogging staff to come up with innovation is like demanding they paint a masterpiece."

True, but you can give your staff paints, brushes and an easel and the time to paint - who knows, one or more might come up with a masterpiece.

Create the climate for innovation, give time, space, encouragement, and of course control, and you might surprise yourself with what comes out of the woodwork.

Yes it needs control, otherwise consumer becomes king and you buy Apple regardless of the true benefits (I'm continually amazed how little innovation Apple really has in its products). Google has famously created this climate, backed good ideas with the right level of resources to see if they might fly - some have worked and transformed the organisation, some have flopped but then you can't make an ommelette etc.

However, the 'cult of innovation', 'innovation for innovation's sake' as you say is what's causing the word to have a bad reputation. If it simply meant 'finding another way that gets better results for less costs' no-one would complain; it's just that the world is full of dead projects and expensive white elephants because no-one got beyond the first three words.

Rich Pemberton
ITSM's Rembrandt ;-)

hard work and basic improvements

Google has money pouring out of every orifice. How many organisations can devote 20% of staff time to hoping they'll come up with something exciting.

besides, Google are an exciting company who pay more: they recruit the cream. For most organisations, it would be more like sitting monkeys in front of typewriters.

personally I'd have a skunk-works group populated with a few brilliant people and I'd flog them to come up with new stuff. the rest of the staff I'd incent to exceed targets and improve productivity. Once every blue moon they might do that by innovation. Most of the time they'd achieve by hard work and basic improvements.

In IT we seem to have this idea that work must be constantly fun, exciting and novel. Hey kids! stop shouting, put the toys down and come sit over here for a minute. I've got some bad news...

Another angle on innovation

I'm currently reading "Design Thinking" by Nigel Cross. Here, on p40, is a great example of where continuous improvement and innovation meet. It's a chapter discussing Gordon Murray's career as the doyen of F1 car designers.

"Another example of radical innovation by Gordon Murray was the Brabham team's innovation of planned pit stops for refuelling during a race, before this became normal practice and was eventually ruled out in the regulations for the 2010 season. This was not so much an innovation in the car design per se, but reflects more of a systems approach to the overall goal of winning each race. At that time it was not normal to have pit stops as regular, planned parts of the race routine. Pit stops were for emergencies such as changing a punctured or badly worn tyre. For Gordon Murray, the innovation of introducing planned pit stops was part of an overall strategy arising from taking his thinking back to a basic issue - how to make the car lighter... the idea dawned of running the car with only a little over half the normal, full-race fuel load, and including a pit stop for refuelling. But that was only the starting-point for a thorough investigation of the implications of such an idea, and of a working-through of the detailed implementation."

So there you are. Pit-stop scheduling, which certainly doesn't fall into the category of "fun, exciting and novel", is described as "innovative" because we're dealing with complex systems and thus have to take a systems approach where things like process innovation can make an enormous impact.

Having said that, I grant you, F1 is a more exciting world than corporate IT, and Murray was very anal about making sure everyone on his team was a genius. So your first point stands - although honestly, with the state of automation these days, there's no excuse for employing people who are just "monkeys in front of typewriters".

Innovation is serendipity

That's a lovely example of innovation. And they stumbled over it, as with all innovation.

If they had formed a team to identify innovations in racing, would they have found this? Would they have found more?
If they had set a team goal of at least one new innovation a year would it have helped?
If they wrote innovation into peoples' KPIs would it have guaranteed this or other innovations?

Innovation is serendipity. We should know how to exploit it when we find it but we can't make it happen.

As for employing lots of great innovative people, the job market in the USA must be different to New Zealand. We Kiwis are clearly a dull bunch because I don't see Google-standard excitingly innovative people in the workplace that often; and I see everyone struggling to fill positions with even ordinarily-skilled professionals.

Go on, innovate!

I agree, innovation and continuous improvement are different. From the definition you provide, I can conclude that not all continuous improvement counts as innovation. But of course that doesn't imply the converse.

And while I agree that you can't "summon up true innovation", I disagree that it can't be measured or managed. The Lean Startup stuff - while it is not without its flaws - is an attempt to do exactly that.

Finally, I think that it's entirely possible to teach people how to innovate - here's a recent HBR article that discusses exactly that:

Managers Don't Really Want to Innovate

This article from HBR (thanks Ben Clacy) is called Managers Don't Really Want to Innovate and goes on about how this is a failure and we must squeeze yet more innovation out of our organisations. I disagree.

Managers aren't hired or paid to be innovators. You can berate them all you want: IT ISN'T THEIR JOB. Not in most organisations. If the whole organisation has a culture of innovation, like Google, then you will get some out of them. But that isn't the culture of most orgs, nor should it be. Can we stop all trying to be Google and get on with running a business please?


I wonder if innovation itself is the issue, or whether it's how IT has come to handle it?

To innovate is to do something new, and hopefully better than the now. Business case and value analyses should establish the latter.

Perhaps the issue you describe is more about technology-led rather than business-value-led transformation. This is where the temptation of the shiny sometimes becomes too much for some IT departments. They can throw themselves into things just because they're new, without considering whether it's helpful.

Two thoughts.

Years ago I coveted the very latest all-singing all-dancing PC and its shiny new version of Office. It then struck me that all I really used the PC for was accounting and word processing. I was about to spend what was a small fortune to me on having something new that would add nothing to my use of the technology. So I stuck with the PC for another couple of years, at least until my use changed sufficiently to support getting something else. IT still get tempted by the shiny. And by those selling the shiny.

A colleague said to me once (about instant messaging capability) why not just do something nice for the business? Where this is within acceptable cost boundary and where it's low impact, why not indeed?

Innovation shouldn't be a dirty word. We just need to govern it, like everything else.

Rich Pemberton

gambling or delusion

Thanks Rich. Cogent as ever.

"To innovate is to do something new" It all hinges on how we interpret "new". As you say to many in IT it means "shiny".
To me the word "innovation" has an element of the unexpected. "New" where it means the latest version of the same old stuff isn't innovation.
But just because something is unexpected or divergent doesn't mean it automatically has value to us - your point. "new" where it means the latest technology before we even understand its value (or implications) isn't innovation, it is gambling or delusion. Innovation requites that we can show the value and show how it outweighs the negative costs and consequences: VOI.

iWatering innovation

You're spot on about Apple of course. So I think you'll enjoy this:


[Skep's note: I highly recommend Scoopertino - LMFAO. Thanks Rich]

Hype curves & novelty

Hi Skep,

Great article. I absolutely agree with these sentiments. The hype around a lot of the topics being discussed in ITSM these days is not what I see when on-site doing consulting and training - from the smallest of companies right through to the largest. The issues/concepts/ideas are there (sometimes), but they are not at the fever-pitch levels that socials networks and conference agendas would have us believe. As you say, people at work do their job and get on with it. Novelty gets shot down and tested in the real world.

Best regards,

oh for the good old days....

....when ITIL was considered dangerously innovative.

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