Since making the jump from academic science to small business, one of the things I’ve noticed is the difference in vocabulary between the two fields. Yes, scientists are well known for their terrible and over-complicated use of language, but every field has its own jargon. One word I just can’t seem to get away from is, “innovation”.
I’m sure many people can relate - the term is everywhere. We have a Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, a National Innovation Agenda, and stories about business and education are hardly newsworthy if they don’t include this one particular buzzword.
Ever since my first day with the company here at NewieVentures, I’ve been told that innovation is our specialty. I never really stopped to think about what that meant. This is until the Head of Tech at NewieVentures suggested I write a blog post about it, and why so many businesses fail to innovate on their own.
It was time to pull my head out the sand, and ask the question: “What is innovation?” - and, oh boy, does the internet have opinions on that one.
After some trawling around, I came to the conclusion that the best way to describe the term is thus: innovation is a new idea which adds value. Apparently, that value doesn’t have to be monetary, but this is a lesson for another time. Not surprisingly, having “new ideas” has a lot to do with creativity, which made the whole concept a lot less intimidating.
Creativity, contrary to what many people think, has nothing to do with being able to draw or play a musical instrument. It just means using your imagination to have original ideas.
So - returning the topic of this blog - why DO established businesses struggle to innovate? I started thinking about how we tend to encourage and facilitate creativity, and how these strategies might contradict with a typical business setting.
Freedom of thought (and time!)
Now, I’m not trying to insinuate that big businesses operate like a totalitarian state. But the truth is: there are restraints on what a business can focus its energy on. If you’re a successful company, you’re a success because you’re getting things done. And therefore, in order to remain successful, you need to carry on getting things done!
Unless you’re in a sore spot already, innovation can never be your priority. You’ve got clients, commitments, projects, assets - whatever. Whatever it is you’ve already got that brings your company value, you need to keep it.
Imagine sitting down to write a poem whilst trying to feed a toddler. Or create a new embroidery design whilst also playing tennis. It’s one or the other, right?
Companies know that they should be innovative if they want to remain successful. Unfortunately, knowing you should do something is different from needing to do something. If you don’t care about what you’re doing (or perhaps you feel it’s outside your field of expertise…which is often the case with a new idea), you’re not going to come up with anything particularly groundbreaking.
You can’t manufacture passion.
It’s a risky business, trying new things. And, in Australia in particular, we don’t like to tread new ground. It’s a fascinating cultural phenomenon - as put by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Jessica Irvine, we’re a bunch of, “line toeing, risk averse, tall poppy-choppers.”
But what’s risk got to do with creativity?
As any writer will tell you, one of the hardest hurdles to putting words on a page is fear. It’s not a pleasant experience to fail, so it makes sense we’re hard-wired to fear vulnerability, to fear risk. That fear can be paralysing, so it’s no wonder that companies seek to avoid it - albeit to their detriment.
Every business has a structure. Every employee has a role.
So when a manager asks their team to innovate, is it really any surprise that employees get stuck? Wherever you work, it’s likely that you have a job description, and maybe a department you slot into. Those factors, among other things, shape your identity and how you think about the company. It’s hard to think outside the box when the very nature of your company relies on the box looking how it has always looked - or at least that’s what it feels like.
It’s hard to get over these traditional perspectives.
Even if you overcome all these innovation hurdles, and have an idea to make a product or service even better, executing your idea might not be straightforward.
If manufacturing, or programming - or whatever it takes to add value to your product - isn’t your main business, it can be frustrating getting your project off the ground.
By the same token, creative pursuits are often brought to fruition by a teams of people with different skills sets and resources - writers work with editors and reviewers, musicians work with other musicians, as well as producers and agents.
Being creative, innovative, inventive - whatever you want to call it - is a huge challenge. It makes sense to reel in collaborators and consultants whenever you get the chance.