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Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship (issue #7) — On innovation snobbery

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


On innovation snobbery

“There are film snobs, garden snobs and inverse snobs, not just people who send their children to elite private schools. Snobbery is in all classes and is a very human failing,” writes Bee Wilson, who herself is an author and food journalist (well and truly at the top of Maslov’s pyramid of snobbery), in her review of The New Book of Snobs by DJ Taylor.

According to DJ Taylor, snobbery is universal. No social class, intellectual category or art form is immune to the snob virus. The essence of all snobbery, Taylor says, is the making of arbitrary distinctions. It consists of “imposing yourself on a social situation, pulling rank, indicating, with varying degrees of subtlety, your own detachment from the people in whose presence you find yourself”. As such, it is both an unlikable characteristic and a very human one.

I haven’t read Taylor’s book, but I would hazard a guess that it doesn’t include the ‘innovation snob’ — this often self-proclaimed wizard of radical. The inhabitant of Accelerator Land who speaks in riddles as if he or she is the reincarnation of the Oracle of Delphi. And indeed, to mere mortals, it often sounds gibberish when they talk about growth hacking, pivoting, and revolutionizing ‘stuff,’ such as slippers. The list of words is endless, and just as in Silicon Valley, innovation is center square on this buzzword bingo. Like snobbery it comes across as a form of social superiority.

Earlier this year, JP Nicols, who like JD Taylor appears to be lacking interpunction, wrote a post called The Four People Who Ruin Innovation. One of these four is the innovation snob. “Continuous improvement and incremental innovation are an important part of keeping a company growing,” Nicols writes, “but they are nothing but eye-rolling material for the Innovation Snob. Solving real problems that paying customers care about is the true heart of innovation, but the Innovation Snob only wants to see something they have never seen before.”

I’m fairly sure that, while reading this, one or two people spring to your mind immediately. But should we care? Or should we take these people with a pinch of salt. Any kind of salt because we don’t want to sound like salt snobs who prefer pink Himalayan to damp, grey fleur de sel from France. Well, not per se. As Taylor argues, snobbery is intrinsically human. As for me, I am terribly snobbish when it comes to socks (don’t ask).

On the other hand though, it begs the question whether our innovation endeavors are really inclusive. Do we as innovators, by acting like some sort of Masonic brotherhood, shut people out, intentionally or not? And if so, does it matter? I think we do, and yes, it matters. By dividing the world in people who are ‘U’ or ‘non-U’ — or should I say ‘I’ and ‘non-I’ — we not only miss out on valuable perspectives and insights, but also run the risk of fortifying the bubble we live in — of fortifying our beliefs and preferred futures without them being challenged by outsiders and people who think (and see) differently.

During her recent talk at The Conference in Malmö, Sweden, futures consultant Angela Oguntala gave a great example of what Glen Hiemstra calles the ‘preferred future’ — the future we want to happen, as opposed to the probable or possible futures.

“The future is a place where we store all of our baggage — our anxieties, our frustrations, our hopes, our excitements and fears.” — Angela Oguntala

“Pop culture has told us over and over again that talking into your watch is something you should want,” Oguntala says. “It is futuristic, it is sexy; so we have constantly tried to produce it, and reproduce it, as if using your watch as a telephone is some major milestone in human advancement, or some great unfulfilled need that is finally being met. […] The thing about visions of tomorrow is that, if we believe this is the thing that is going to happen in the future, than this is how we will behave in the present. These are the decisions and actions that we will make today, in order to make that future come to live. And that is exact why visions are powerful. Because the creep in, and we collect them, and then they inspire us and give us something to work towards.”

“But in the same ways that our visions can inspire us, they can also start to severely limit us. Because if we hear the same narratives all the time, and we see the same visuals all the time, then that becomes our scope of possibility. Then that becomes our benchmark for what we believe is good, and what’s not. And ultimately what that means is that you’re left with a narrower set of choices and imaginations about what the future could, or should be like.”

Aguntala’s answer is to start building a collective mindset that is open and flexible to explore the many alternative futures and different realties that are out there. These are extremely important because, as we all know, there is not such thing as the future. “There is no such thing that sits around here on a timeline and then shows up one day. Instead, there are many possible futures, and each one has some likelihood of coming to live. Our collective job is to imagine those alternative futures for us to pick apart and inspect, for us to get a good understanding of the kind of outcomes that we want. And the kind of outcomes that we don’t want.”

The collective mindset Oguntala talks about doesn’t go well together with the often exclusive character of corporate accelerators and innovation labs, and, of course also, Silicon Valley with its latest fascination for flying cars. A fine case of innovation snobbery.

Uber Outlines Vision for Flying Cars.
Uber Outlines Vision for Flying Cars (source: Bloomberg).

But there is also a very practical side to this. In When Innovation Meets the Language of the Corner Office, Dave Rochlin writes about the difference in language used by innovators and functional C-suite executives, who are often baffled by what they see and hear from their innovation teams.

“As with other business disciplines, innovation experts have their own language,” Rochlin writes. “Innovation processes now include journey mapping, need-finding, technology-scouting, business model canvasing, prototyping, design sprints, and more. While these processes and terms are becoming more widely used across organizations, they are not always fully embraced at the executive level. […] The language of customer need is one that everyone speaks. But the structure and language of the story should match the audience. When speaking to executives, innovation leaders should make sure they are not only heard, but understood.”

So pause for a moment and ask yourself how inclusive your innovation activities really are. Are you being challenged enough by ‘outsiders’ — by people who could potentially disagree — or are you just being confirmed in what you already believe and how you see the future? Are you solving people’s and society’s real problems or are you merely chasing boy or girlhood dreams? In any case, could we please stop mistaking The Jetsons for the future?

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 A bit more …

“Companies trying to create a culture of innovation often seem to rely on office decor like ping-pong tables tables or multi-colored bean-bag chairs, or one-off events like hackathons. But most of us who want to be more innovative would like to do so in our day-to-day work. What should we be focusing on?” Three things, says Amantha Imber in Help Employees Innovate By Giving Them the Right Challenge: find the challenge sweet spot, remember that challenge trumps capacity, and aim for 70%.

“Aiming for 70% success with challenges you set or take on ensures that you won’t play it too safe, which is an innovation killer. So when thinking about goals you want to work towards over the next year or quarter, make sure that there is at least one in the mix that gets you out of your comfort zone and pushes you enough to make you unsure whether you can achieve it. Just make sure the challenge is aligned with your skill set and thus hits the sweet spot.”

“In Sapiens, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that it was the exploratory mindset that led to European dominance over the world. Other empires, such as the Chinese and the Ottomans, had far greater military and economic power in the 18th century. Yet, it was the Europeans quest for understanding that made the difference,” Gregg Satell writes in Innovation Needs Exploration.

“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 explorations 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.”

“Change is frightening to many elements inside the typical organization,” writes Stefan Linegaard in Defeating the Corporate Antibodies. “Change threatens people’s power, their status, their egos, and, in some situations, even their jobs. Change can make someone’s expertise obsolete and thereby make them obsolete as well. Because people are afraid of change, innovation efforts often cause the eruption of corporate antibodies that fight to kill innovation and maintain the status quo.”

If you want to succeed in open innovation you have to make changes in business functions such as sales, supply chain, production, and others to accommodate your new external partners. This can be scary to many people.

A study by J.P. Eggers and Aseem Kaul, shows “that while large, established firms do actively pursue path-breaking new technologies (accounting for the lion’s share of patents that make radical new connections in our study), they would have more success doing so if they went after such technologies from positions of existing strength, instead of only trying for the next big thing in times (or in areas) where they are starting to fall behind.”

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, the saying goes, but it’s precisely by trying to fix things that aren’t broken that firms can raise their odds of staying ahead. If you wait till it’s broken, it may be too late to fix.

In When Big Firms Are Most Likely to Innovate, Eggers and Kaul write their results “show strong support for our theory about the mismatch between motivation and ability: firms are most likely to introduce “radical” patents when their prior technological performance has been just below their aspirations, but such patents are most successful when introduced by firms performing substantially above their aspirations. Further, we find that this mismatch is especially pronounced in large, multi-technology firms — the more technological areas you compete in, the more eager you are to try radically new things in areas where you’re falling behind, and the less eager to mess with those technologies that are doing well.”

And finally Steve Blank. In Why Tim Cook is Steve Ballmer and Why He Still Has His Job at Apple, he writes: “In a startup the board of directors realizes that risk is the nature of new ventures and innovation is why they exist. On day one there are no customers to lose, no revenue and profits to decline. Instead there is everything to gain. In contrast, large companies are often risk-averse engines — they are executing a repeatable and scalable business model that spins out the short-term dividends, revenue and profits that the stock market rewards. And an increasing share price becomes the reason for existing.”

The irony is that in the 21st century, the tighter you hold on to your current product/markets, the likelier you will be disrupted. (As articulated in the classic Clayton Christensen book The Innovators Dilemma, in industries with rapid technology or market shifts, disruption cannot be ignored.)

“Increasingly, a hands-on product/customer, and business model-centric CEO with an entrepreneurial vision of the future may be the difference between market dominance and Chapter 11. In these industries, disruption will create opportunities that force ‘bet the company’ decisions about product direction, markets, pricing, supply chain, operations and the reorganization necessary to execute a new business model. At the end of the day CEOs who survive embrace innovation, communicate a new vision and build management to execute the vision.”


ABOUT MARK STORM
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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