Is Innovation Just a Washed-Up Trend?

Back in 2004, Business Week magazine (not yet “Bloomberg”) released their special 75th anniversary issue. In 100-point type, the cover proclaimed “THE INNOVATION ECONOMY” as the theme of the special issue. Right away, I thought, “When a business trend makes the cover of Business Week, that usually means it’s already peaked.”

Wow, was I wrong. Innovation has increased in importance every year since 2004. Business Week eventually added a special once-a-month centerpiece insert “Innovation and Design” (edited by legendary design guru Bruce Nussbaum). But now, in 2012, has the trend finally peaked?

Evidence: The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday May 23, 2012) argues that the term “innovation” is now so widely used, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore–other than a very general notion of “change.” Longtime WSJ reporter Leslie Kwoh says “Businesses throw around the term to show they’re on the cutting edge….But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating.” And then she gives the biggest insult you can give to a trendy business term, in my opinion: she compares the word “innovation” to the washed-up buzzword “synergy.” Ouch, that hurts!

In another section of the same paper, on the same day, is a story titled “Tinkerers Unite! How Parents Enable Kids’ Creativity.” This heartwarming story makes me believe there is a future for America, as I read about parents who create workshops for their children and let them disassemble old TVs and old alarm clocks, and give them soldering guns and hot glue and set them loose. As a child, I remember spending hours out in the garage, using my Dad’s table saw and making games that I’d invented, including making the boxes to store them in. Now that I have a 9-year-old son, would I let him anywhere near a table saw? No way! I can’t believe my parents let me use it (and they weren’t out there watching me, either). Maybe I need to rethink this. After all, I managed to retain all of my fingers! Maybe our concern with safety is keeping our children away from the chance to build, to make, to experiment.

These two articles present an interesting contradiction. Innovation is passe, and yet hands-on creativity and tinkering are going to lead to the next great invention. As usual, I think everyone is right (I love everything I’ve read by Leslie Kwoh, by the way). But whether or not businesses talk the talk without walking the walk, the reality is that if you don’t walk the walk, your business is going to suffer. If you’re in a non-innovative organization, it seems as if it’s impossible to do all of those crazy things that the innovative companies do. It seems impossible, until you actually do them. And then, you can’t imagine what it was like the old way, and why it took you so long to change. If it sounds like a personal and spiritual transformation, maybe it is–if an organization can be said to have such a transformation.

I hope my son continues his tinkering (so far safe, with LEGOs and other indoor toys) and his game invention. I need to think of better ways to foster this. Maybe my wife and I should create a workshop space for him. What have you tried with your children?

5 thoughts on “Is Innovation Just a Washed-Up Trend?

  1. Focusing on the next great invention — whether at Proctor and Gamble or at you dad’s workbench — misses 99 percent of why we should cultivate creativity in ourselves and in our children. Here’s a rough outlook. If one percent of the hundred odd million Americans age 25 to 65 hatched a marketable idea in 2012, the result would be 1 million new gadgets, processes, life-saving drugs, and other things that separate us from our money. That’s about what goes on. But all kids can benefit from creative approaches to making things, working on math, science, and history problems, writing stories, acting in classroom dramas, and of huge importance — tackling and solving problems of all sorts. Our research indicates that developing personal originality associates with self-efficacy. Originality is great for overcoming challenges and achieving goals. A new Swiffer or Post-It Note may surface along the way, but effective participation in our society is what’s really at stake. james http://www.croc-lab.org. Centers for Research on Creativity.

  2. I watch parents tell their kids not to play with sticks because they might hurt themselves, not to touch plants, not to climb trees, fences, walls. They look at my kids playing and I can tell from their faces that they think I am an irresponsible parent. It takes quite a strong will to go against this disapproving meme. I find it quite scary actually.

    Fears for children’s safety is not the only problem. This obsession with stopping copying is preventing children from learning how to innovate. For example, my son wants to create lego toys like his older brother. So I suggest that he creates a lego toy by looking at his brother’s and then working on his own. He started doing it until I mentioned the word ‘copy’. Then he stopped, saying that he couldn’t copy his brother’s work. When I think about how Michelangelo and all those other great masters learned their art – by working as apprentices copying work, it makes me feel really sad. I have an uphill battle against the culture drilled into my son at school, where copying is deemed bad.

  3. When I wrote about Innovation from Everyone and Everywhere (http://www.dol.govt.nz/services/LMI/innovationeverywhere/index.asp) it was because I was concerned about the dangers of people continuing to see innovation in a one-dimensional way (totally disruptive done by the alphabetically enhanced, aka, Ph Ds, and elitist).

    I think the current combination of increasing collaboration and experimentation, enabled by social media and 3D rapid prototyping, and on-line learning, are going to turbo-charge innovation. As Sir Ken Robinson is always reinforcing in his writing and talks, kids are naturally curious, creative and experimental: natural innovators. So definitely encourage your child to “play” with technology and machinery that they can use to create their versions of what could/should be. Let your son ‘learn by doing’ and he’s bound to innovate.

    The potency of the 3D rapid prototyping technology is that it provides such fast feedback about what works/doesn’t work so your child can learn fast, and iterate. As IDEO says, fail fast, fail often. So he’d be well on the way to developing his innovative capacity. And having fun, which is such a great way to want to keep learning.

  4. Keith,
    I concur with your point about whether not giving kids the freedom to explore, unencumbered by safety rules and regulations, is impacting creativity and innovation. Are we failing to build up kids’ immune systems by doing so? I sometimes wonder if the high incidence of allergies in North America is also related to this watchdog mentality? Fueled by fear? There is a muich lower incidence of either of these phenomena in Europe and South America and has that made a difference in some way? Of course, we may need to delineate this conversation along social classes. Not sure. Just thinking aloud.

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