Is Innovation a Process or an Outcome?

The Rotman professor and pioneer in the emerging field of strategic foresight explains why desire is the true driving force of innovation

Published: Aug 5, 2010 06:42:00 AM IST
Updated: Aug 5, 2010 02:34:50 PM IST

You believe that everything we know and desire is the outcome of a single discovery that was made 1.9 million years ago. Please explain.
The discovery you speak of is fire, and it represents the first moment in history when civilization transformed itself.  The transformational part came when humans discovered that fire could be put to beneficial uses, which vastly changed their behaviour and expectations.  What is interesting to note is that fire already existed in the environment, it just wasn’t being put to a beneficial use. People came across it and observed it, but it had no ‘media’ for humanity, because we didn’t use it to accomplish anything.

It only became a ‘disruptive innovation’ when one day, somebody figured out how to preserve it and then someone else -- probably thousands of years later -- figured out how to start a fire.  At first we used it for obvious things like light and heat, but before long we used it for another major transformation: energy. Disruptive innovations such as fire and electricity are not manifest in the moment the new technology is introduced; the disruption occurs only when human motivation embraces the technology and allows it to enhance everyday life.

You believe innovation is not a process, but an outcome.  How so?
Innovation is that moment in which behaviour is changed by an invention, and thus it is a human activity. As we use an invention, our goals change and our motivation changes, making further innovations necessary. In today’s business world, innovation is tricky. I’ve worked with lots of large corporations, and after a few such experiences I realized that great ideas tend to get disregarded and are not implemented. For example, I did some work for a global telecom company, the outcome of which was a device quite similar to the iPhone, but with even more capabilities. This company was ideally suited, in my view, to create a new market space with this device.  The presentation went very well, and then the leaders said, ‘Fabulous work, great job; but this is not our business’.  That line really stuck with me and has become a dominant aspect of my search to try and understand where innovation fits within organizations, and why some people still believe that it is ‘not their business’. 

I have come to realize that many organizations treat innovation as a process to be managed, rather than as an outcome that changes people’s lives.  If we return to fire for a moment, fire is not innovation, it is an invention.  The innovation part entails using it in multiple ways to innovate new ways of life.  The same can be said about YouTube.  Our behaviour when we are on YouTube is the innovation, because it is a piece of technology that existed before it was called YouTube. Our ability to upload, download and observe – that is the innovation. 

You have said that the role of business is “to create the tools, objects and services through which people can manifest what they want and who they are.”  Is all innovation aspirational?

Innovation is rooted in desire, not need. We all feel the desire to become better through experiences, education, tools, systems and services, which help us achieve our higher goals. If you think about it, civilization is really a journey towards creating the conditions we want. It is our shared history as humans that we desire to be more than we are, and the role of business is to create the media for you to become something else. 

If transformation is the key to growth, then the tools of transformation or the media for transformation is what a company creates. This applies to everything from soap to computers and iPhones.  Apple is a great example. I don’t see Apple as a computer company or an IT company, but as a culture-creating company.  Apple doesn’t create products, it creates a way of life, a way of engaging with the technology that is different than just using the product. Frankly, I don’t really care much about how nice the product looks, because I’m lost in it;  I’m much more interested in what I feel about it and how I’m different with it, and this is the key to understanding the role that business plays today.  Apple creates moments for happiness.  In other words, ways to make me happy. Proctor & Gamble does this with certain products, as does Unilever; and caloric nourishment is not the only reason we eat -- any food company that knows what its true job is essentially creates products for transformation. 

In your innovation paradigm, what is the role of design?
This takes us back to the debate about whether innovation is a process or an outcome.  As I’ve said, I believe innovation is an outcome, but it needs a process to achieve that outcome, and that process is design.  The process that best describes the capabilities needed to arrive at innovation outcomes -- which include attention to motivation, goals and desires resulting in a new behaviour -- is the design process, because it is so closely connected to both technology and user preferences, user needs, psychology, ergonomics and so on. 

Try this: lift your hand in the air, about head high, and then let it drop around your body.  This is the phenomenon of gravity. Now, you can wait for a theory of what you just experienced to arise, or you can proceed in life knowing how gravity feels, and what you have to do to master it.  I propose that we can apply this same attitude to business and the design of innovation outcomes: engage in the discovery of manifestations of what is happening, understand the values that people are after, then design and deliver new opportunities for new manifestations.

You advocate that people learn to ‘look at the world twice’.  Please explain.
The truth is, a lot of truth is hidden right in front of your eyes.  Our lives are very much about habits.  Once we have a fixed paradigm of what tomorrow will be like, we are unlikely to change very much.  So if you want to participate in life and be part of the perpetual transformation offered by innovation, you need to be able to absorb everything that is new. If you look at the world twice you will perpetually see what’s new and how you need to transform yourself because of what’s new.

When you look at a newspaper headline or hear about a new behaviour that people are engaging in, step back and look again, without jumping to judgment.  See it twice, and look at it from a point of view outside of your daily habits. You can dismiss FaceBook as a fad or something that only kids do, but if you look at it again, you will understand that it is actually a behaviour that profoundly changes the way people act and relate to each other and with themselves.  FaceBook is basically a broadcast station for every human that uses it. When you look at tools like this as proof of transformation, you see them in a different way. This understanding of life is something new and dynamic and is not something that companies typically plan for, because, after all, strategic plans are made for five years from now. The dynamic quality of life has to be better accounted for in corporate strategy. 

You believe that we have lost our ability to play.  Why is this significant?
The importance of ‘play’ is a longtime passion of mine. Society constructs all these barriers against play by deciding that what is not play is what is important, which makes play appear rather trivial.  When we play we can discover things and we can transform ourselves, which means we can learn about life. With play we learn through experimentation. If you look at the greatest inventions of all time, they were not the result of work or orders given to somebody: fire and electricity were essentially outcomes of play -- experimentation, discovery, searching.  The electric motor is a prime example.  Michael Faraday was not a scientist, he was a bookbinder.  He was experimenting with finding ways to replicate mechanical motion.    I don’t think Faraday called what he did work and I’m not sure if he called it play either, but definitely it was much closer to play than to any kind of work. There are countless other examples.

The issue of play is becoming a human resource issue in modern organizations, because there is a huge gap between the ‘digital generation’ and the ‘analog generation’. The digital generation sees play as a way of expressing themselves. It’s not that they take life less seriously, but they get fulfillment by achieving things through an easy-going and sort of a natural progression of understanding life through play. Face Book and YouTube are an example. On the other hand, we have the analog generation, which doesn’t quite understand what these people are all about.  In  organizations these two cultures are clashing, and this is very relevant because there is no transmission of knowledge occurring from one group to the other.  A major challenge for today’s organizations is to bridge the gap between the analog and the digital camps.  My advice to companies is to build a sort of play space in which both of these groups can meet and learn from each other.

In what ways are pillows and coffee innovations ‘beyond competition’?
For many thousands of years, humans innovated out of a competitive spirit. We had to, as we needed to survive and we were in competition with other animals. Once we discovered fire, we could start manipulating it to create tools, and the first tools we created allowed us to compete better against the other animals in the gathering of food, in the construction of shelter and so on.  Virtually every single thing we have done as a race was initiated by this competitive drive.

Companies have the same mentality.  They assume that in order for them to change and transform anything, they need to find a benchmark against which they measure the transformation.  But then comes a moment in which we find ourselves in need of a pillow.  A pillow is obviously not about competing, it’s about something else.  The discovery and spread of pillows and the industry that it has created is essentially a surrender to a very simple concept of life: pleasure.  The primary motivators in life are very few and rudimentary: a search for sweetness, for smoothness, for shiny things and for pleasure. These are very basic and human and they lie at the root of industry as we know it today.

Pillows, then, are not just pillows. The pillow is an outcome, not a process, and the pillow appeared in our lives because we were searching for a smooth, soft place to rest our heads.  This is a statement about who we want to become and it is profoundly human --  I don’t think any other animal makes pillows.  As a mindset for innovation, the concept of ‘beyond competition’ starts with questions rather than problems: How can I live in comfort?  How can I feel pleasure?  How can I keep warm?

Coffee is another example of an innovation beyond competition. It is the second largest commodity on the planet. The first is oil, and we can all understand why oil is a commodity, but can anyone explain to me why coffee is considered a commodity? It makes you realize that we are in search of something, because coffee is not food; it is directed to pleasure.  In the end, we wouldn’t have an economy if we didn’t have hope and we wouldn’t have an economy if we didn’t have a quest for pleasure or the desire to become something else.

Alexander Manu is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School, where he teaches a second-year elective called “Innovation, Foresight and Business Design.”  He previously taught at the Ontario College of Art & Design and consults to Fortune 500 companies.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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  • Marc Sniukas

    I say it's much more than a process and an outcome:

    on Aug 7, 2010