The Fallacy of the Innovator’s Ambition – A Call for Tinkerers

Innovation and Transformation.

Wow. Just saying those words conjures up images of wildly successful business models that disrupted industries, technological prowess that stole market shares, visionary products or services that relegated competing and highly capitalized companies into shells of their former self, and even the creation of mega-millionaire pop star phenoms overnight.

How can people tasked with transforming or innovating in their respective organizations perform under this kind of weighted expectation? Indeed, they probably don’t.

I just finished reading a book called “The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home” written by Dan Ariely. In it, Ariely, a professor of behavioural economics at Duke University, recounts a number of experiments he has crafted which lend insight into human behavior at work, and at home. One of these insights is particularly relevant when considering the often daunting task of transformation and innovation.

Ariely ran several social experiments to test an individual’s inclination to donate to a cause. He varied, however, the stimulus presented to individuals to elicit a behavioural response. One group of individuals were given a broad stimulus request such as “help the millions of people below the poverty line in Africa” (in our context this would be the dazzling innovator’s ambition) while others were given a specific, and personable, stimulus such as “help Andy, a young boy living in poverty, this is his story”). No surprise, that those in the latter experimental group donated more than those in the former.

What this tells us is interesting. In the face of a large scale problem, people can’t identify with the problem nor contemplate how their small actions contribute to a solution, so they balk under the expectation and don’t act. But, broken up into more personable, and less sizable problems, people will persevere and perform – they will react with a feeling that they can indeed make a difference. The transformation and innovation buzz – the discourse surrounding innovation’s criticality to organizations and the examples used to define what they mean – has done a disservice to the people who are tasked with doing the transformation and innovation. It has placed sizeable expectations on them, increased the distance between today and the goal, and placed the yardstick so high that taking the first step en route to improvement seems futile. The mumblings of “where do I start?” are audible.

The broad domains of service and product innovation, new product development, service transformation and service improvement – call them what you will – need a new image. In almost all cases, transformation or innovation represents “incrementalimprovements to ” or the introduction of something “different”. Indeed, when you look at the synonyms for transformation or innovation, words like “alteration”, “modification”, and “deviation” are supplied which provide a more palatable ambition to strive for. These ambitions are more practical, and more achievable. What is required to succeed is discipline in terms of business analysis rigour, strong leadership of people, direction underpinned by thoughtful road-maps, and the execution of plans. Individuals viewing their ambition in these small steps will look back on their efforts and realize that, from where they started, they have more than likely made significant transformation progress. The significant barrier of a huge expectation will have been removed.

For the Government context, this is a worthwhile thought exercise. Innovation in the public sector context is difficult, oftentimes due to the consequences of failure and the lower tolerance for risk. But this is likely a function of the ambition of innovation being akin to those dazzling examples which I referenced above. Well of course, when viewed in that light, failures can be big because the goal was commensurately large and virtually unattainable under the best of circumstances. When considered in a more more practical context, innovation and transformation efforts can become the byproducts of a disciplined approach to “tinkering”. Yes, tinkering.

So, this is a call to tinker. Tinker with your processes. Tinker with your assumptions. Tinker with your business model. Tinker away in a planned and disciplined way, and when you’re done tinkering, add the tinkerings up. And then tell me about your transformation success story.


Stephen Karam is a Systemscope Partner with over 15 years of experience providing thought leadership and consulting services in the areas of government service transformation, multi-channel service delivery and related information management projects. Stephen has extensive experience in providing business transformation, project management, and business development services, giving him a unique background that allows Systemscope’s customers to realize the value of feasible service solutions within the context of their business. His in-depth understanding of the Government of Canada’s policies, practices, and culture contributes to his ability to propose workable, reliable, and repeatable business solutions for Systemscope’s public sector clientele. Stephen has more recently focused on government service transformation initiatives, including business vision & strategy, service delivery strategies, enterprise architecture, information management and project management consulting services for Systemscope’s clients.


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