Is it just me or is the word inno­va­tion being overused to point where it los­es its mean­ing?” So tweet­ed the bril­liant film-mak­er Tiffany Shlain (@tiffanyshlain) recent­ly. What a coin­ci­dence. I had just fin­ished read­ing a tru­ly first-rate essay [link] on “Why has human progress ground to a halt?” by Lon­don-based sci­ence writer, Michael Han­lon [link].

The notion that our 21st-cen­tu­ry world is one of accel­er­at­ing advances is so dom­i­nant that it seems churl­ish to chal­lenge it,” he writes. Then, he quick­ly points out in extend­ed detail how “inno­va­tion” today is a poor rel­a­tive to times past. He talks about the “Gold­en Quar­ter,” the years between 1945 – 1971:

Just about every­thing that defines the mod­ern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, dur­ing this time. The Pill. Elec­tron­ics. Com­put­ers and the birth of the inter­net. Nuclear pow­er. Tele­vi­sion. Antibi­otics. Space trav­el. Civ­il rights.

There is more. Fem­i­nism. Teenagers. The Green Rev­o­lu­tion in agri­cul­ture. Decoloni­sa­tion. Pop­u­lar music. Mass avi­a­tion. The birth of the gay rights move­ment. Cheap, reli­able and safe auto­mo­biles. High-speed trains. We put a man on the Moon, sent a probe to Mars, beat small­pox and dis­cov­ered the dou­ble-spi­ral key of life. The Gold­en Quar­ter was a unique peri­od of less than a sin­gle human gen­er­a­tion, a time when inno­va­tion appeared to be run­ning on a mix of drag­ster fuel and dilithi­um crystals.

Today, progress is defined almost entire­ly by con­sumer-dri­ven, often banal improve­ments in infor­ma­tion technology. 

I can’t do jus­tice to the force of Han­lon’s own words, but he’s basi­cal­ly say­ing that (as Ms. Shlain must also have meant) that when a new ver­sion of a cel­lu­lar phone or com­put­er soft­ware is announced, the pro­duc­ers may call it “inno­v­a­tive,” but it’s not. And that’s even more true for a new spin on dish­wash­er soap.

What's next?

In the words of those of us work­ing on nextsens­ing, new ver­sions of old ideas do not equal inno­v­a­tive think­ing. Here’s how I would sug­gest you think about inno­va­tion from now on.

  • You are only as good as your last inno­va­tion. That means inno­va­tion can’t be the province of only a few peo­ple inside the firm. Prop­er­ly, it must be every­one’s job and must nev­er cease. That is a tall order for any organ­i­sa­tion, but the alter­na­tive is (soon­er-or-lat­er) irrelevance.
  • Imag­i­na­tion trumps rou­tine work. While it is indeed true that we are liv­ing in a gold­en age of tech­nol­o­gy, it is equal­ly true that human imag­i­na­tion — the crit­i­cal input for inno­va­tion — is hav­ing trou­ble keep­ing pace with tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments. Why? It is not a ques­tion of capac­i­ty (humans can be an end­less sup­ply of imag­i­na­tion and inge­nu­ity). Rather, it’s more a ques­tion of time, atten­tion and pri­or­i­ties. I am amazed at how lead­ers spend their time, what they pay atten­tion to, and what their pri­or­i­ties are. Job #1 for lead­ers should be address­ing one cen­tral ques­tion. How can I get the most out of the human imag­i­na­tion that works for (and with, and even around) this com­pa­ny? Clear­ly, some of that men­tal ener­gy needs to focus on exist­ing busi­ness pri­or­i­ties; yet, more and more human ener­gy today needs to be direct­ed to solv­ing the big­ger chal­lenges of firms: get­ting to their next state of success.
  • Aspi­ra­tions are a start­ing point for inno­va­tion, the desire to do some­thing dif­fer­ent than what you are doing today. Lead­ers who have an aspi­ra­tional tone to their com­mu­ni­ca­tions are the ones who usu­al­ly unleash the col­lec­tive ener­gy of those around them. As much as John F. Kennedy’s vision­ary chal­lenge to “put a man on the moon and bring him back safe­ly” is cit­ed in cor­po­rate speech­es, when was the last time you heard its equiv­a­lent from some­one in gov­ern­ment, busi­ness, or edu­ca­tion? Way too many orga­ni­za­tions are dri­ven by “dou­ble-dig­it earn­ings growth” and sim­i­lar dec­la­ra­tions. Let’s be frank, such aspi­ra­tions (I guess we can call them that) are unin­spir­ing for every­one but short-term, return-focused share­hold­ers. And that is sim­ply not enough in today´s con­stant­ly mor­ph­ing land­scape to keep human inspi­ra­tion suf­fi­cient­ly engaged.

In his arti­cle, Han­lon explores pos­si­ble rea­sons why inno­va­tion has dried up across the plan­et. None of the rea­sons he puts forth seems to answer the ques­tion for him. He con­cludes with these words about the last few decades of “progress”:

But it could have been so much bet­ter. If the pace of change had con­tin­ued, we could be liv­ing in a world where Alzheimer’s was treat­able, where clean nuclear pow­er had end­ed the threat of cli­mate change, where the bril­liance of genet­ics was used to bring the ben­e­fits of cheap and healthy food to the bot­tom bil­lion, and where can­cer real­ly was on the back foot. For­get colonies on the Moon; if the Gold­en Quar­ter had become the Gold­en Cen­tu­ry, the bat­tery in your mag­ic smart­phone might even last more than a day.

There’s a lot of wis­dom in his writ­ing. Until the world’s lead­ers, on every lev­el, start mov­ing all of us beyond our myopic one-day, one-week, or one-quar­ter goals, maybe the word “inno­va­tion” will mean a whole lot more than it does right now.

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