Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship (issue #10) — On the lack of principles

Every fortnight, Mark Storm shares some observations and insights on innovation and intrapreneurship. His motto: don’t just ‘do’ innovation, ‘are’ innovation.

On the lack of principles

I find it increasingly difficult to write about innovation.

First, there’s nothing much new to add to everything that has already been said or written. When was the last time you bought a book on innovation and thought, after reading it, “Crikey, I’ve really learned something new here!”? I haven’t, to be honest. At least, not for a very long time. Most books simply repackage fashionable innovation practices such as Lean Startup or design thinking, interlaced with stories of companies that have successfully adopted these practices. But we hardly ever hear from companies that also use these practices but nevertheless fail. Which is much more interesting, of course. Besides, in the long run these practices usually don’t seem to create any value and can even stifle long-term innovation. Most go out of fashion after a while, ony to be replaced by ‘the next big thing in innovation.’

The other reason why I find writing about innovation increasingly difficult is more personal. I seem to have lost interest in innovation altogether. That is to say, in what most people call ‘innovation.’

Maybe these reasons are related. Because we all read the same books, go to the same conferences, follow the same people, we end up doing the same things. We are merely ‘innovation copycats.’ This, in turn, leads to more of the same — to an endless stream of exchangeable products and services.

But it goes deeper. There’s the question whether we are actually innovating the right things. For the right reasons. Most companies, whether established or startups, don’t. They simply create more ‘stuff,’ instead of more ‘meaning.’ They may pretend to make the world a better place, but hardly ever succeed.

Remember how Uber was all about sharing, just like Airbnb? But they aren’t, not really. It’s just another business model trying to create as much value as quickly as possible. Not social value, but things like company or shareholder value. Uber and Airbnb may have started out with the noblest of intensions, but at the end of the day it’s about growth and expansion. Again, scale over meaning. If we truly want to improve people’s lives, we need to find better ways of transportation, not more Uber.

Airbnb is turning cities into hotels. You only have to look at cities such as Amsterdam and Venice, to see what (more) tourism means for its inhabitants. In Venive, you’re lucky to bump into a real Venetian as most are fleeying the city.

A protestor in Venica, Italy, holding a sign saying ‘Farewell Venice.’ (Photo: Marco Bertorelli/AFP)
A protestor in Venice, Italy, holding a sign saying ‘Farewell Venice.’ (Photo: Marco Bertorelli/AFP)

And with Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary hoping to offer zero fares within the next ten years, I sometimes wonder whether we have totally forgotten ‘the shit’ we’re in. Instead of flying more, we should fly less. But flying less, of course, isn’t Ryanair’s business model, just as creating liveable cities is’t Airbnb’s and better public transportation isn’t part of Uber’s.

I’m not saying that it should be ‘either-or.’ We simply can’t feed the world’s population — 9 billion by 2050 — on organic food, and most certainly not on avocado toast. We will also need genetically modified foods, artificial meats, city farms. It’s, as always, ‘both-end.’

I understand that Ryanair, from their business perspective, wants to make flying free, but should we? Is it ethically right? I like Airbnb, and use them myself occasionally. But would you like to live in a city that looks like this:

Airbnb’s in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Do you really want to use Uber, knowing that behind behind every customer seeking a fast ride is a worker, often working 60–80 hour weeks, who is denied the basic rights of employees. Forget about sharing. This is the ‘gig economy,’ which “is coming under increased scrutiny as poor worker conditions, worker protests and first-hand testimonials draw attention to the fact that it may not be technology powering the app revolution as much as plain old contractual insecurity and worker oversupply,” Izabella Kaminska writes in a recent FT Alphaville exclusive: Inside the gig economy.

In a bid to figure out just how fair or unfair the contracts which bind the gig economy really are, and to discover how easy it is or isn’t to make a decent wage, Kaminska decided to take a stab at food delivering. The video in the article is a testimonial of her experiences. Please have a look, before you tell people your (next) startup idea is “like Deliveroo meets” whatever.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not aksing you to stop innovating. On the contrary. We need more, albeit the right innovations for the right reasons. Though, we should stop worshipping Silicon Valley’s ‘tech moguls,’ especially in the year Silicon Valley went morally bankrupt. “If the Valley wants to create something other than a technocracy that favors authoritarians and punishes their critics,” says Sarah Jones in a tought-provoking article in The New Republic, “it has to engage with the world it’s trying to change and undertake the messy business of regaining its moral equilibrium.”

So, if you may find a problem that needs solving, not only ask whether it’s a real problem — does it really exist? Also ask whether your solution is morally right. According to Jessica Helfand in Design. The Invention of Desire, the key ingredients missing in the pursuit of innovation are empathy, humility, compassion and conscience. Together, these four form a set of principles — a system of moral values — for innovators to live by. The thing is, you’ll never find these in innovation books. Head for the philosophy section instead.

A few random finds …

“The trouble with best practice is you are looking at someone else’s practices and these are highly individual, made up of different groups of methodologies, processes, rules, theories, values and concepts. These together have provided that specific company a level of success that others — mostly competitors — begin to notice. […] The key is to look forward and recognize past best practices are just not relevant today. We need to look forward and seek out those ‘next practices’ that are emerging.” — Paul Hobcraft in Forget Best Practice, It Is All About Next Practice.

“To explore, you first need to come to terms with your own ignorance. We find the accomplishments of men like Columbus and Magellan so impressive precisely because they didn’t know what they were getting into. Yet they still had the the courage to sail boldly into the unknown when no one else dared to venture forth. Today, scientific exploration is what fuels the modern world. We look at an iPhone and see the genius of Steve Jobs, but forget about the work of men like Maxwell, Faraday, Einstein and Turing that led to it. So science budgets are cut and skeptical politicians grill researchers about the value of their work. Yet without exploration, there can be no advancement.” — Greg Satell in Innovation Needs Exploration.

“Whether self-driving cars and trucks, drones, privatization of civic services like transportation, or dynamic pricing, all these developments embrace automation and efficiency, and abhor friction and waste. As Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, told MIT Technology Review, ‘Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.’ It is, he said, ‘the great paradox of our era.’” — Om Malik in Silicon Valley Has an Empathy Vacuum.

“If you start by saying, ‘Let’s implement a practice,’ you will get to the end of it very quickly and you will have changed very little in your organization and then you will find yourself at a dead end. […] You have to start much deeper and operate with a different mindset. You have to be thinking: What are the principles that you build into the organization? If you want to reach a whole new level of human capacity, if you really want people to wake up very day, jazzed to go to work, excited to give their very best, people who are challenging conventional wisdom, what sort of management would that have to be? Then we can work backward from there.” — Gary Hamel in Can Big Firms Be Agile?

“Today’s successful engineer should be driven by business and technical knowledge together with art. We are living in a transition time and this time calls for new models, a new management mindset and new management tools. Art is an important, dynamic part of the mould that makes up the progressive business climate today. Should we be studying Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare at the same time as the management theories of Peter Drucker? One thing is for certain: relying on ‘business as usual’ in today’s landscape is as good as staying on board a sinking ship.” — Fiona (McIntyre) Fitness in Is a Master of Fine Arts the ‘new MBA’?

As a catalyst for change and renewal, Mark Storm challenges leaders to understand today and shape tomorrow. He is a progressive thinker and sense-maker who looks at the world through different prisms — constantly asking himself why is it like that and not like this?

You can follow Mark on Twitter and Medium, and connect on LinkedIn.

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