Adapt to Experience

Slow recognition of Innovation

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Innovation is not well understood.

By John Veitch


In 1996 I developed a theory of innovation I call the Veech Innovation Model .  It's been available on the Internet since then.  A few researchers have contacted me to say that the model was helpful.  There has been no other interest.

In 2000 on a listserver based in New Zealand a respondent named Alekzander wrote stating that "new economic research shows that innovation plays a central role in the productivity and growth of an economy".  I reacted with indignant anger.  I'm thinking, "what's this new research notion", surely that's been self-evident for at least 30 years.  With this bit between my teeth I go back to my journals for "proof." The proof isn't there.  My memory deceives me.  I'm wrong.  (The remembered past is not necessarily accurate.) {I've been keeping a journal based on the things that interest me for over 30 years.} [A member on the list was trying to get support for a wind powered generator he had designed, and his company was called, Wind Torque Limited.]

I searching my journals, and I'm surprised at what I find.  I do find a reference to wind power generators in 1978, but the word innovation is not used.  I find even as late as 1980 the key ideas of business development were based on the birth, childhood, troubled adolescence, and successful adulthood model.  Four stages of development. 
Development economists have likened it to an aircraft taking off.  Aircraft seemed to provide an attractive analogy, taxi, take off, rapid climb and sustained flight.
Amongst economists the ratio of investment to sales was a key factor separating developing industries from developed industries.  Research was supposed to take place in R and D departments.  To my surprise innovation was wasn't identified as a key factor if my notes are to be believed.

Here is a brief history from my journals.  (A Stack of 44 books by now.)

1975 - Innovation will only occur as fast as a given society will allow it.

1981 (Note the gap) - Milton Friedman – Innovation in free markets is desirable.
Ian Mune: (Actor and Producer) "producing a new play kills you."

1982 - "Trying is all they teach you here.  You keep trying until you find something that works."
J.J.  Servan-Schreiber: "The permanent and collective quest for knowledge explains the Japanese success." "The Japanese have learnt how to learn."
Michel Crozier: American industry is in trouble because of bad decisions made when times were good.  "Learning how to learn is the essence of the computer revolution." "The development of the farmer must precede the development of the farm."
Peter Huggler: Financial innovation alone will only build a society like the older or existing society. 

1983 - Jack Shalcrass: (NZ Educator) Innovation is a social process badly needed in education. 
J A Schumpter; (1976) The capacity to innovate explains capitalism's success.  He goes on to talk about "waves of creative destruction" and the "fundamental impulse to capture new markets."
First reference to Deming and the idea of Total Quality Management occurs here too. 

I note also that the concept of the "knowledge society" is already in the literature, buried, I agree, but the idea was exposed in the popular press by both Servan-Schreiber and Crozier.  We can also see demonstrated here how it takes 20+ years for innovative ideas to spread and gather power.  {writing in 2003, I can agree with Andrew B Hargadon, that innovative ideas have history.)

1985 - Gregory Bateson: Lots of critical ideas (14 pages in my journal) "The pattern that connects", improved perception, impossibility of prediction, importance of randomness, readiness, causality, mapping, data is not equivalent to information, adaptation, addiction, evolution, selective processes. 
"The genesis of all new notions is almost totally dependent upon reshuffling and recombining ideas that we already have."
"This whole book is about the wrongness of our questions." "I suspect" ..  that we do most of the foolish things we do " to affirm our membership." We begin with false premises, we reject clearly superior ways of doing things, and then fight battles with each other over phoney issues."
Peter Spraque: Talks about the failure of the National Enterprise Board (UK) to save British companies.

1986 - Warren Berryman: He calls for NZ businessmen to get real.  The big deals the glossy façade, and glamour are not the core of business.  "What's being produced here?" Growth requires innovation and investment; both brains and capital. 

1990 - The first real discussions about what is and is not innovation in NZ.  The success of some NZ firms is highlighted. 

The book "Upgrading New Zealand's Competitive Advantage" commonly known as the Porter Report, claims that business managers in N.Z.  are too focused on twin issues, production and cost reduction.  The objective is to be "more efficient".  These attitudes are "not well aligned with the requirements for an upgrading economy"...This makes it "difficult to develop higher order competitive advantages and reinforces a focus on price competition in industry.  This focus is reflected in a reluctance to invest in research and human resource development as these are seldom seen as central to competitive advantage." The report highlights the failure of NZ to be innovative and adaptable and highly skilled. 

Martin Devlin of Massey University was promoting innovation.  Japanese management systems were being promoted, teams, team meetings, everyone has input, continuous innovation.  There were some good ideas here, but it doesn't seem to have lasted. 

Too much focus in my view on knowing "exactly" what you intend to do, and in pursuit of this objective as a team.  TQM processes did produce a lot of innovation based on improving the production process. 

Eleven years later, nothing has changed.  The Porter Report was quickly buried, we don't like bad news.  For me it was a spur to action.  I did a lot of research during the next three years.  In 1995 after an intensive three-month period of preparation, I offered by letter to work with Christchurch companies looking at the innovation process and engaging in executive and staff training.  Response?  Nil.  No interest what-so-ever. 

I wrote several articles that are available on the WWW.  I have had long conversations with some people who are doing research (NZ), and with several people involved in research and innovation overseas.  Even so not a single inquiry by anyone in management, government, or business consultancy services in NZ. 

So when I see the struggle Wind Torque Limited is having, I recognise the pattern.  Colin Murdoch is the best known example of NZ innovator who struggled for recognition and who never did find support in NZ.  It's an old story.  You can't "give people" your new idea, they never get it, you can't make them understand.  "So I did it myself" they say and "when I finally showed them what it was everyone wanted to help".  But too late of course, the help was needed five years earlier.  I understand why we don't make much progress.  The first change has to happen in our heads.  While we keep congratulating ourselves on how good we are, that change can't happen.  (In 2003 that's still the case, the TV and NZ Government publicity is all about our wonderful success as innovators.  But they still don't understand why it happens, or why it almost always fails to happen.)

On the other hand there are good examples in NZ.  But they are few and far between.  The biggest barrier is the myth that we are already "good".  It's a defence.  It's not true.  Readiness is a wonderful simple concept.  You can't learn anything until you are ready.  If you already "know" then you can't learn anything.  You become ready when you know that you "don't know."

Finally, I've quoted quite a bit from my journal.  How many of you keep journals?  Or even the equivalent of the old "farm diary"?  Where in our culture do we encourage our young executive staff to begin collecting in a permanent record (Hard covered books.) problems and ideas, signs of strength and weakness, ways of coping, the most inspirational thing that happened today?  In 10 or 20 years that simple continuous record becomes a tool that distinguishes you from every other player.  Having your own "knowledge" gives you the power of decision, when other people can only wonder "what's next." When I think of "knowledge management" I think of real people who have "their own knowledge", who know where that knowledge is, and can access it whenever needed.  That knowledge isn't in the library, or in the company records, it has to be "in you".  Only one person can put it there.  If you have staff, young staff, and you can sell them that message, NZ will one day be in good hands. 

Thank you Prof. Hargadon for your reinforcement.  I have one further insight to add.  You say, "We tend to be most uncomfortable when we are working in new settings, where we are not quite sure what's the right thing to do or the appropriate way to behave, and we're not sure that we have anything to contribute." I know that moment well.  About three years ago I gave it a name.  The importance of the "vague idea".  This is a highly unpopular notion.  Everyone is sure they are supposed to have strong and specific and detailed ideas.  That is what you get when you write history backwards.  Writing history the way it really happens you always begin with a vague idea. 

It takes courage to investigate a vague idea, enormous energy, because you don't have "permission" to go there.  (A self created "permission".) We do kill our own inspirations.  Mostly that's good, most of our ideas are really not worth the effort.  Self censorship exists for a purpose.  BUT we must in the same process also kill some ideas we should have explored in more detail.  You have to make choices and It's simply not true that "you can do anything".

In my own case I've got a book full of vague ideas.  I need another life to explore them.  It won't happen of course.  There are plenty of wonderful vague ideas to explore, but most people don't have the courage to begin.  They prefer to wait until they know they have a "winner".  People like that wait forever, never developing the courage to begin the journey.  Don't tell me that you can't find an interesting project to invest yourself in.  Most of the best business ideas have a gestation period of about 20 years.  Too many people are willing to help for the last few months. 

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