Innovation necessitates departures from the so called tried and true. You can’t make new seeds from old hay. You need to dig in places where no one else has bothered to, ask questions no one else is asking, and pursue paths that may lead nowhere but could also pull you in directions that would have never been discovered had you stayed on the prescribed path. You do it because what’s been done already is no longer working, or is working so well that everyone is doing it, losing its differentiating value.
And you do it because we are no longer in the late industrial economy of objects: We’re now in the post-industrial economy of experiences.
People are using technology to reshape the landscape, suggesting that standardization and mass production are no longer valid sources of meaning. Meaning is derived from how your product or service fits into your customer’s life. We are told that we now need to follow customers wherever they are – on their laptops, in their cars, at the store, on their mobiles, or in their kitchens. And we need to understand them well enough to offer up customized and individualized experiences and solutions in all of those environments.
Process alone will not get us there. These complex challenges require richer inputs, deeper data, and more flexible approaches than are available from your local neighborhood market research firm. This is why a key pillar of the innovation ‘process’ is ethnography. Ethnographers have tools and processes like everyone else, but what particularly suits them to the task of defining meaning in a postindustrial setting is the depth of their inquiry, the flexibility of their approach, and the probity of their insights. Rather than restrict their thinking to a prescribed method, ethnographers select the processes and tools that will help them understand people for what and who they actually are – not what the marketing department wants them to be. The processes they select are both a response to the situation and a derivation of it.
In this context, the practitioner is more important than the process. Processes and tools can be selected and discarded as needed. If you have experts who know by experience and learning the world that they’re in, and are given a clear set of goals, they will select the appropriate routes to meet those goals. And they will do so without losing sight of the content. Process is created and re-created as necessary.
Similarly, the task of sensemaking benefits from a flexible approach to identifying and classifying areas of opportunity for innovative ideation. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach at this stage of the process; the nature of the opportunity will be determined by the source and variety of the data. And no amount of process will improve weak data.
Much as we have tried to impose the cult of efficiency on all of our institutions, whether they be cultural, educational, or commercial, it is becoming painfully obvious to more progressive thinkers that not every human endeavor can be shoehorned into a tidy, reductive process. The world is a messy, complicated, chaotic place. Business practice is a subset of the way the larger world works, not the other way around. Homo economicus is the product of economic modeling, not the progenitor of economic reality or the larger reality in which economics operates.
Unfortunately, we have somehow made business process into a self-fulfilling prophecy because its apparatus not only allows us to define the rules of play, but encourages us to manipulate the world to conform to those rules whether it fits or not. We have essentially created the process equivalent of a Procrustean bed.
Rather than saw the legs and arms off reality to fit the process, we need to fit the process to the purpose, and allow knowledgeable practitioners to decide what processes and tools are best suited to the challenge of producing innovation in a world that will always be bigger, messier, and more complex than we are capable of grasping. It’s like what Bertrand Russell said about the human brain: If it were that easy to understand, we’d be too stupid to understand it. And we’re not really that stupid, are we?
Featured in the MISC 2015 : The Creative Process Issue.
Will Novosedlik is AVP, head of growth partnerships at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.
Paul Hartley is head of human futures and senior resident anthropologist at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.