In praise of improvement

By Tom Wood @Foolproofer

Innovation is a word we are all seeing a lot of these days. Many companies, agencies and commentators see it as the special sauce that is missing from the design and marketing world. If we could only be more innovative we would develop new products and services which would re-energise customer engagement, drive revenue and create clear water between us and our competitors.

The global economic crisis led to some very fallow years for commercial innovation. Every client of mine which previously had an Innovation group disbanded it between 2007 and 2009. But now it’s back filling up column inches, blogs and tweets – each one alerting us to the grave risks of failure to innovate, and celebrating those who are.

There’s an almost palpable sense of panic amongst senior businesspeople that their organisation isn’t innovative enough, and is therefore missing out on the commercial and reputational benefits it would bring. The result? There’s a lot of horse-shit being talked about innovation by people who make money advising senior businesspeople.

What do we mean by innovation?

Let’s look at it alongside two related terms. You’ll excuse my rather blunt definitions:

  • Invention: Creating new things or methods
  • Innovation: Using existing things or methods in novel ways or in new contexts
  • Improvement: Making existing things or processes better

It’s easier now to see innovation relative to its two close cousins, invention and improvement. Innovators take someone else’s invention and apply in one of two ways. Either they create an entirely new product or service for an audience or market unrelated to the original invention (SMS text messaging is a classic example of this: invented to allow telecoms engineers to send short messages to each other, but converted into world-changing commercial service for customers). Or they apply it to an existing situation to solve a known problem. Apple didn’t invent the multi-touch screen, but they saw the opportunity to make a vastly better mobile phone.

Why is this hair-splitting important? Well because while very few of us feel like we are qualified to be innovators, everyone who has a job knows that they get paid to improve things. Improvement is a game we can all play. Which suggests that if we really want to drive creativity and innovation, we should probably start by giving a bit more help and encouragement to people whose job it is to improve things.

Creeping up on innovation

If you are really trying hard to improve something you’ll often look around for technologies or ideas being used in a different context but which could be applied to your problem. Technically, you’ve stopped improving and you’ve moved on to innovating. But in your world you’re just doing a bloody good job of improving the thing you’re working on. Instead of making little improving nudges, you might now be looking at a great big hairy improvement which will have everyone applauding and get you written up in Fast Company.

Your innovative thinking (for it will now be called that) will be hailed by one and all, but most people will miss the point: that you arrived at your innovation because you were engaged in improving something.
Rather than outsource creativity and innovation to special teams or external consultants most companies could be getting more out of a resource they have in abundance – employees already being paid to improve things.

To succeed in this businesses should stop drawing a hard line between improvement and innovation. People and teams tasked with improving products or services should be given more time, resources and encouragement to explore more ambitious improvements. I don’t have data, but I’d wager that most innovations in recent history have come from people who were trying to improve something, not from people with ‘Innovation’ in their job title.

Innovation with a capital ‘I’ is like big game hunting. It’s risky. You might return with a big trophy, or you might come home with nothing. Improvement - if it’s done with an open-mind and a good understanding of the problem you are trying to solve - can be a much more reliable way to create value. And everyone can be involved.

 

Tom Wood

I’m one of the two founders of Foolproof. Within projects I usually take a role both in planning our approach and in the generative phases of design. I’m also active in gathering client and customer needs into the design space. My particular talent is helping senior stakeholders see and understand the customer’s world in richer detail, and helping them work out how to respond.

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