Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Leadership and the Innovation Crisis

Guest post from Alf Rehn:
Some say we live in the golden age of innovation, an age ruled by transformation and revolution. They point to shiny startups and the seemingly unstoppable progress of technology, and proclaim that our age is on track to solve all problems and cure all ills. I say they are sorely mistaken.
Instead, I would argue that we live in the age of innovation crisis. What crisis, you may ask? A crisis of imagination, a crisis of ambition, a crisis of vision. A crisis where there has never been more talk about innovation – there’s no end to the books, blogs, LinkedIn-groups and Instagram-feeds dedicated to the same – yet we still struggle to solve some of the basic problems in society. We’ve never spent more on innovation, yet as many CEOs are starting to notice, the returns are diminishing, and the trend is down, not up.
This is an age where you can buy a pair of “smart” socks that can communicate with your phone and let you know how many times they’ve been washed, but where despite having an abundance of food we still have hunger, even in advanced societies. An age where a great deal of money pours to a limited set of people in a limited area of the world, for the solving of very limited problems, whilst many who reside outside of Palo Alto or other anointed “innovation hubs” see their livelihood eroding and their environments getting poisoned. An age with lots of talk of innovation, lots of resources for it, better conditions for it than ever – but also an age of shallow innovation and a lack of innovation leadership. This is an age where we, as a global society, spend a minimum of $3,000,000,000,000 (that’s three trillion dollars, and it is a very, very lowball estimate) on innovation every year, and where at the same time around 750,000 children will die of diarrhea – just this year.
This doesn’t mean innovation is dead. Far from it. We still create things, we still solve problems, we still design the most amazing technologies. The problem, however, is that much of this is a random walk down solution lane. That is, when it isn’t a case of solving trivial problems simply because that’s where the money is at. You see, the issue really isn’t that contemporary innovation doesn’t produce things. It does. It creates many products, many services, new processes, and a plethora of apps. Some of these even make money. What it doesn’t do is to direct and focus the potential power of innovation – with all the money and the knowledge and the skills and the technology at our disposal – to where it can do the most good.
Succinctly put, innovation has a leadership problem. There is innovation, but far too much of this is done without any deep, meaningful purpose. Instead, it goes where the money is, where the easy solutions are, following the path of least resistance. A true innovation leader would protest this, demand that innovation should have impact and purpose and a meaning beyond dollars and cents, but as we have a lack of such leaders, innovation focuses on shallow show-offs. Without true innovation leadership, we risk that the exponential technologies that could be harnessed to solve some of the most complex wicked problems of our age – an aging society, looming environmental disasters, ossified social structures, the coming water crisis, and so on – are instead focused on improving cheap entertainment and incremental improvements in food delivery system.
What our age needs, then, are new innovation leaders. For these, skills such as innovation management and design thinking will not be special but assumed by default, just as we today assume people can handle email and Excel. Besides such basics, tomorrow’s innovation leaders will need to build strong, inclusive innovation cultures – replete with psychological safety and a capacity to reflect on the most challenging, contrarian ideas. For them, emphasizing diversity in innovative organizations will be a given, and they will leverage this to crank up innovation ambition and foster deep discussions about the purpose of the same. They will realize that some innovations can be done quickly, and they will be comfortable experimenting, but in addition they will understand that some innovations can take years, even decades, to come to fruition and have the courage to engage with them despite this.
The next challenge for today’s leaders is to develop this kind of innovation leadership. We have the resources, and we have the problems. Do we also have the courage, the grit, and the fortitude to truly allow innovation to be all that it can be? Time will tell, but the organizations that are prepared to take up the challenge of innovation ambition and true innovation leadership will be the ones that define the decades to come. Will yours be one of them?
Alf Rehn, author of Innovation for the Fatigued:  How to Build a Culture of Deep Creativity, is recognized as a global thought-leader in the field of innovation and creativity.  Rehn is Professor of Innovation, Design, and Management at the University of Southern Denmark, sits on numerous boards of directors, is a bestselling author, and serves as a strategic advisor for hot new startups to Fortune 500 companies. For more information, please visit https://www.koganpage.com/product/innovation-for-the-fatigued-9780749484088.

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