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You can’t innovate innovation

Photo by thinkpublic / flickr

Photo by thinkpublic / flickr

This guest post is from Molly Clare Wilson, an experience designer and teacher in San Francisco.

“We want to become more innovative.”

Okay. This is fine. You want to be more creative, but in a practical sort of way. Let’s do this.

But now you have to innovate…something. You can’t just sort of innovate in the abstract.

This should be obvious by analogy: you don’t learn to bake in the abstract. You learn by baking blueberry muffins, devils food cake, popovers, meringues, sourdough bread, and cherry pie, getting better and more inventive as you start to understand how baking works. You’ll only get better and better at your innovation process, whether it’s design thinking or something else, as you try pointing it at different problems.

So what’s your first task? What are you going to work on?

The pattern I keep seeing, and that I want to squish like a bug, is that the thing you first try to work on is your approach to innovation.

It seems like such a good idea! It seems like you’re killing two birds with one innovative stone. Not only do you get to practice a new approach, but the end result of your practicing this approach will be – wait for it – innovation. This often looks like one of these examples:

  • We want to create a space for innovation. I like that you recognize the importance of physical space, but you’re still innovating an aspect of innovation, so, no.
  • We want to design an organizational structure that enables innovation. Same deal: organizational structure is important, but you’re still fumbling towards the platonic innovation ideal.
  • We want to design an innovation curriculum. Educators, you’re the best, but you do not get a free pass.

Don’t do this. You want reasons? I’ll give you reasons.

You’re chasing your tail.

So you are sinking your teeth into a new innovation process for the first time. And the thing you are trying to do with this process is make more people sink their teeth into a new innovation process for the first time. Read that again, and realize that it makes no sense.

Are you with me on this yet? No? Okay, let’s say you’re drafting a law for the first time, and it’s a law that governs the drafting of laws. Or, more realistically, you’re writing your first blog post, and it’s a blog post about how to write blog posts. (Not that this stops anyone.)

Learn the process, then think about how to spread it – in that order.

You’re wimping out.

Innovating innovation is a very, very safe choice of topic. It feels impossible to fail at. Nobody’s going to say “your new innovation space/curriculum/team doesn’t work” because they don’t want to kill the buzz.

Plus, how would anybody know if it’s working or not? Innovation is not something you have any kind of evaluation in place for. It’s a bonus, an add-on, a whimsical decoration, a cool cover photo for your quarterly report or alumni magazine.

Eventually, it is up to you to dispel the halo and figure out what success in innovation means to you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the “it’s okay to fail” mentality. But that’s very different from “let’s make it impossible to fail” or “we really have no idea if we’re failing or not.”

Start off on the right foot by working on things you can actually user test, evaluate, and continually improve. Whether or not you are being innovative isn’t one of those things – yet. Set your sights on something that feels practical, concrete, and most of all, important.

Molly Clare Wilson is an experience designer and teacher in San Francisco. This post was originally published on Molly’s blog, where you can read her latest thoughts and writings. You can also follow her at @mollyclare.

 

1 Comment »

  1. I love this post – really clear and concise and cuts through the mythology of design thinking / innovation in practice.

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