Leadership and the Innovation Crisis

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
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
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