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Do we really need Innovation?

May 30, 2017

We live in a world that moves ever faster. Change goes relatively unnoticed, and we simply accept it as the technology around us advances. There used to exist an unofficial ‘Rule of 2’, whereby every two years, technology would double in sophistication. This process seems to happen much faster these days.

I work for an oil and gas tech company. We’ve been around for a while now, and our success thus far has been underpinned by new, disruptive tech. However, our industry is facing hard times at present, with the market for oilfield equipment shrinking massively. There will be a recovery of sorts one day, but I am yet to speak to anyone expecting a return to where we were. In times like these everyone is looking for a solution. Heavy emphasis is placed on innovation, and a lot of noise made about how it is critical to the survival of the industry. But is it?

Innovation in its purest sense means turning things on their head, altering the course of industries in the process. Looking back, it is easy to pick out moments in history such as this. Take 29th June 2007 as an example. Having existed purely to make phone calls and send the occasional text message, the mobile phone was changed forever, becoming an integral part of our everyday lives, and revolutionising how we interact with one another. How? The iPhone was launched.

So how can innovation be a bad thing? Well, through an imperfect understanding of how innovation actually happens. The iPhone was a revolutionary product, but for the most part, the technology already existed in other forms. It was the way we used the technology that changed. Made possible by how innovatively Apple brought it together. It was innovation, not invention, and that is what needs to be kept in mind.

Another turnoff is forgetting that innovation comes in scale. Talented, hardworking people can have great ideas with real benefits, but if the bar for what counts as innovation is set at the iPhone, many of these ideas will never see the light of day. People become preoccupied with searching for that huge breakthrough. They become secretive, keeping the idea internal until they can present something amazing, which rarely happens. What is lost here is the collaboration, feedback, and sharing of experience that could in fact be the catalyst the innovative idea needs to become viable.

So, what is the solution? Well what we need is to set the focus on good ideas, small changes, steady improvements, and put the support in place to make this happen. Companies need to build teams around key issues, to share challenges and find solutions. Great innovations are a combination of good ideas, from multiple sources. Steve Jobs didn’t bring the iPhone to market on his own, and he certainly didn’t come up with the idea of the mobile phone. Good idea, multiple sources.

Some people can spot the need for something new, others might miss the opportunity but have the skills to bring it to life. Even those who don’t have answers could ask key questions of the project, playing Devil’s Advocate. This type of work takes varied groups, openness, time, and trust. People need to feel safe to raise a hand and rock the boat, knowing if they fall overboard someone will throw them a rope.