Innovation: why disruption isn’t the only option

21 Aug

GoldfishGoogleIn the world of innovation, Clayton Christensen is a big deal – his book The Innovator’s Dilemmahas been the bedrock of much innovation theory since it first came out in the late 90s. It’s central thesis about disruptive innovation (& how new technology disrupts old businesses because their existing value networks & paradigms don’t value the new stuff) and it has been hugely influential across business and a wide range of other sectors. Which is why it caused a bit of a stir recently when it was given a fairly public takedown by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker. Her take was that taking a rigorous, research-led look at Christensen’s theory identifies plenty of holes – not least that several of the organisations he raised up have since not done that well (while those apparently being ‘disrupted’ have since gone on to great things).

I’m not well-informed enough to know which side of the argument to come down heavily on, although my sympathies are with Lepore – captivating business theories aren’t often followed up and analysed fully (it will be interesting to see if we are *still* talking about changing the tax letter 10 years from now as the best case study of ‘nudge’ in action in the UK). It’s been similarly well-documented how many of the companies in Good to Great then went to Gone. Broadly, I’m with John Kay in the FT on the Lepore-Christensen squabble (see Innovation disrupted by warring gurus).

But the thing that stood out for me from Lepore’s critique was less about the strength of the research / evidence or otherwise (Christensen has pointed out he has updated his book several times since), but more her attack on the overuse and misuse of the term itself. As she puts it, “Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives” – that certainly resonates with me. In the social sector here, we do seem to have simply appropriated the term and assumed that we should also seek to achieve or find or foster disruptive innovation. Should we? Is what Christensen puts forward about digital cameras or steel manufacturing as easily applicable to mental health services or youth unemployment? Is the language and landscape of clusters, accelerators and incubators appropriate for the social sector?

I was struck by this when listening to a senior guy from Google talk to a room full of mostly social enterprise leaders about all things Google – how they innovate, what products are coming up next, building culture, not being evil etc. It was interesting & engaging, and there was the odd nugget or takeaway that I felt I might be able to apply or think about putting into action in some way. But I couldn’t help feeling there wasn’t much that translated; a feeling reinforced by one of the leaders afterwards who pointed out that it was a little bit different running an enterprise supporting the most vulnerable people with complex needs in a very disadvantaged area in England – the ability (& propensity) to take risk is entirely and rightly different; innovation very likely to be incremental not disruptive; 20% of time on innovation development a non-starter; minimum viable product a scary prospect..and so on. Even before we get to the difference in scale. Is Silicon Valley really the model for everywhere (& everything) else?

It’s prevalent – take this recent TED talk from Joi Ito which takes the Silicon Valley ‘model’ (& different iterations of it) as the model for innovation everywhere, in a vast swathe of assumption. Or, as another recent article put it, we have heard a lot about Zappos and the way their values and practices revolutionise business, but we have heard less about Zalando and their effective implementation. And our sector ends up talking about social silicon valleys and the like, despite a long and outstanding track record of creating organisations & movements that create social change – Amnesty, Oxfam (& countless other major charities), Open University, the co-operative movement, the Big Issue (& accompanying network of street papers), fair trade, and many more. It’s primarily supposition that more innovation infrastructure, or mimicking venture capital in all its forms will lead to any acceleration in the continuation & growth of this track record.

The other error our sector seems to be making is often conflating innovation with technology (and in doing so, often with novelty). Got an idea? Got an app to go with it? Score! Got an approach that works? It isn’t online? No score! [NB – this is exaggerated for probably limited comic effect] I’m a passionate advocate and user of new technology, and of course it is changing our lives in myriad different ways, and opening up new possibilities – but does it require specific focus to generate more examples? Or, as one recent post put it, isn’t every entrepreneur a digital entrepreneur now? Isn’t every social entrepreneur too? Maybe this specific focus is helping drive progress – though I’d like to see more money flowing to investment in technology that helps existing organisations have more impact; apparently the ‘systems investment for medium-sized effective charity/social enterprise’ doesn’t have quite the same pzazz as a new start-up being accelerated.

[incidentally, kudos to Local Partnerships who are piloting a social investment fund for investment in technology; it has a narrow-ish focus, being only aimed at spin-out social enterprises from NHS / Local Govt, but let’s hope other funders and investors see if there is room for similar]

It’s not just about the social sector, though. Innovation is everywhere – I’m a big fan of Santander at the moment, because they have really authentically engaged with the social enterprise world, and supported a good range of initiatives (including some with my organisation, SEUK) which are trying to address gaps and build markets. But their current account advertising baffles me: its claim is that it is three things: 1) Useful (OK) 2) Rewarding (OK) 3) Innovative (erm…). Why on earth would I want my current account to be innovative? Many other companies are doing the same – as if innovation (rather than reliability, customer service, responsiveness, better pricing, consistency etc) is simply a good thing per se.

Of course, this isn’t an argument for the status quo – we need new answers and solutions but we also need to use the ones we have already found (& evidenced) more effectively; and we need to improve and refine models and services that work, but could be even better. And we know that social enterprises innovate – sometimes through necessity, sometimes by happy ‘accidents’ and coming-togethers, and sometimes by design. Often they have new collaborations and partnerships at their core. Certainly at SEUK, our most meaningful forward-pushing work is done in partnership (often multi-partnership) – sometimes that makes it more challenging than going alone, but the outcomes are usually better and more lasting.

So this isn’t an anti-innovation rant. But it is a ‘let us think about (& foster) innovation in the ways that are appropriate and fit to us’ plea. Less catchy. As I’ve written before, Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals says that the “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative“. I’m not sure this has been an attack, or successful, but here’s a go at a constructive alternative made up of several parts:

– let us celebrate and encourage incremental innovation (and the persistence and commitment it can require), giving them profile to rival the new start-ups and waves of entrepreneurs
– let us look at infrastructure & interventions that promote & incentivise collaboration, partnership and joint working; across sectors, seeking to create shared, collective social value (less bees and trees than constructing a hive)
– let us look at the best innovation practice from not-the-US: what are the best approaches from Europe, Asia and elsewhere? (have we given up on frugal innovation? where are the long-term approaches + thinking on diffusion / replication?)
– let us read + respond + give equal prominence to alternative voices: the work of Judy Estrin (the Innovation Gap) and Mariana Mazzucato (the Entrepreneurial State) as we do to the Facebooks and Googles (Judy Estrin is worth listening to as a counter-blast to the rest of Silicon Valley on this recent Peter Day podcast: Inside Silicon Valley)
– let us create funds for investment in IT and finance systems, and in training / networks for those in operations, project management and partnership roles
– let us support innovations seeking to change the market and operating environment so that all those start-ups can thrive in their chosen industry

Or we could wait for the hack hack and the Accelerator for Accelerators to be joined by a Lab Lab and an Incubator Incubator. And wonder whether the money spent is really helping the people and communities that prompted the action in the first place.

One Response to “Innovation: why disruption isn’t the only option”

  1. dansutchnt August 22, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

    Great post Nick. I started a tweet in response, which became comment here, which then became a blog post. Thanks for starting the conversation

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