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Why We Don’t Need an Innovation Culture.

Over the last year or so, many people have written blogs, or LinkedIn posts, about how innovation is failing. The authors generally offer a simple solution – develop an “Innovation Culture”. They are not always clear what they mean by Innovation Culture but usually it involves giving freedom for creativity and being tolerant of failure. My gut feeling was that there is something wrong with this. I couldn’t put my finger on what the problem was, but a couple of recent posts from Eugene Ivanov have helped clarify my thinking. (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/one-more-time-culture-innovation-eugene-ivanov and https://innovationobserver.com/2017/06/28/the-culture-of-innovation-misnomer-oxymoron-myth-or-chimera ).

What Is Innovation?

When I am asked this question my knee-jerk reply is always “Innovation = Novelty x Value”. However, what is meant by “value”? In my view, value is defined by how well the innovation delivers a solved problem. Notice that I say, “solved problem” and not “problem solution”. This goes to the core of why I am uncomfortable with the concept of an Innovation Culture. Too often, management see innovation as finding solutions to problems. Whether these solutions work or not doesn’t seem to matter – it’s OK, we are failure tolerant. They try to develop a culture where it doesn’t matter if you fail as long as you tried. (Try telling that to the athlete who was fourth in an Olympic final.)

What Is Failure?

Despite what I said in the previous section, I do believe that we should accept failure as a part of innovation. It took me a little while to resolve that apparent contradiction. The answer boils down to what you mean by failure. I see two types of failure in innovation – the failure of a problem solution and the failure to solve the problem. The first of these is acceptable but the second is not. If a particular solution fails that is OK, but we still have an unsolved problem. We need to keep looking for new solutions until we find one that does work.

So, What Culture Do We Need?

If an Innovation Culture is not what is needed to generate useful innovation, what culture is needed? I would contend that we need a “solved problem” culture. We need a culture that says, “we have identified a problem that must be solved and we will solve it”. How is not important. If it involves innovation so be it, but if it can be solved by e.g. a traditional sales technique, then why not?

Summary

The concept of Innovation Culture is flawed because it puts too much emphasis on innovation rather than actually achieving something. It is often like the tail wagging the dog. We need a culture that is focused on solving problems. Innovation is one route to this but it is solved problems that should be the destination.

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