Humans first – putting the ‘I’ in innovation

In his first address to the National Press Club, Australia’s Chief Scientist recounted the now (much studied) story of the building of the Vasa: a case study of innovation gone wrong.

To begin with, the King of Sweden commissioned a modest, single-deck war ship, built from old growth oak. As the build progressed (and the monarch’s kingdom came under greater threat), the King decided that it would be better to build a much larger warship with two decks, each bearing 36 cannons. Being a pragmatic Scandinavian, the King decided it would be simplest to build the larger ship using the keel and emerging skeleton of the smaller ship. To the King’s very great surprise (and embarrassment) the ship sank within 20 minutes of its launch in the middle of the Port of Stockholm, with a sizeable crowd of the King’s subjects looking on.

Some 400 years later, the Vasa’s sinking is still analysed by business students the world over. We’ve concluded that the Vasa is a case study for how not to do innovation. Everything about the approach screamed looming failure. Notably,

  • a client (the King, no less) with grand dreams of building something new to inspire his countrymen and impress his neighbours, but no clear idea of what he was procuring
  • inappropriate emphasis on impressive bells and whistles (the additional decks) with little to no relevant function
  • no clearly defined overall strategy or design architecture.

It’s easy enough to poke fun at a long-dead Swedish king for failing to innovate. But there are an abundance of modern day examples in the both public sector (anyone for a broadband network that by 2025 will be 75% slower than the rest of the world?) and the private sector (for example, Coca Cola’s new Coke) indicating that as a modern society, we’ve learnt nothing about innovation practice since the late 1620s.

Recently, I was asked during an interview to name the biggest frustration I currently face in my work supporting organisations to become digital leaders. It was an easy question to answer: it’s the widespread imperative to be disruptive and innovative and the absolute tunnel vision that those (noble) pursuits create. In the last few months alone, I’ve encountered several organisations taking on innovation in the manner of the Swedish monarch.

For the record, I am an advocate for innovation. I am particularly concerned by the slow bleed of innovation and creativity from small to medium-sized Australian enterprises, as measured by our declining rank on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. I passionately believe that, as our world speeds up, we need innovation even more. But, as Alan Finked put forward in his address, innovation can be done with much more sensitivity, pragmatism and nuance. It doesn’t have to be all (ideas) boom or bust.

To overcome the all or nothing thinking, I believe we need to build a shared understanding of what innovation actually is. Innovation is a type of renewal, which changes or creates more effective processes, products or ways of doing things. Disruption (oops, I said it) is a type of innovation, where an entirely new product or service creates a new market and value network that fundamentally changes the way things were previously done. So, Uber is an example of an innovative company. But it’s a particular class of innovator, which is incredibly rare. I find that this simple definitional shift actually releases the burden we feel to change everything about work, and fast, which frees up creative thinking.

Another really great point Alan Finkel made, is that innovation is more than science. It’s the idea that the humanities— sociology and psychology— are the perfect complement to technology and innovation. Finked says: “In all of the complex challenges that technology will bring, the humanities, arts and social sciences are critical to our research endeavour and we neglect them at our cost. Combine these research elements and we will reap the benefits.”

In practice, achieving this balance comes down to remembering the ‘i’ in innovation (Actually there are two!) People are at the heart of the changes we make. Just remembering that we are not adapting or changing for innovation’s sake: we are innovating to make someone’s life better. It could be for ourselves, as business owners. But it’s more likely to be for our employees or for our customers: the people who help us create products or services, and the people who buy them.

Thinking about innovation from a human perspective also challenges us to develop our own ‘soft’ skills: how we communicate, the questions we ask, how we make decisions and the creative processes we use. Industry-leading technology organisations now realise this connection. Riley Newman, head data scientist at AirBnB’s strategically hired social scientists instead of data scientists for his number-crunching team because he views

AirBnB as a social business, with people at its heart

I firmly believe that without committed focus to people, innovation will flounder, just like an under-engineered Swedish warship.

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