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Innovation: The Holy Grail?

I am fascinated by innovation. When you read about great companies or Agility, you keep hearing about how success comes from unlocking innovation. We know from history that significant innovations have generated vast wealth. What we don’t do much is dissect innovation to understand it.

In my reading on the topic, I have come to understand that there are two basic types of innovation. These have various descriptions. I use synthetic and inspired. Synthetic innovation combines existing things, systems, or ideas in new and novel ways. Think about McDonalds. They used modern manufacturing techniques for real-time food production.

Inspired innovation is much more difficult. Tesla, the man for whom Elon Musk named his synthetically innovative automobile company, was an inspired innovator. Unlike Musk, he was never wealthy. His innovations were the foundation for modern electrification. It’s hard to imagine the total value of that, but Tesla learned the hard way that innovation, however unique, isn’t enough.

People like Thomas Edison took Tesla’s innovation and used synthetic innovation to produce vast fortunes. The deeper one digs into the history behind great inventions, the more it becomes apparent that synthetic innovators are usually the economic winners. People often credited with inspired innovation were, in reality, the beneficiaries of someone else’s.

Henry Ford is typically credited with inventing mass production. However, China had mass-produced crossbows centuries before Ford was born. Gutenberg arguably invented modern mass production with the printing press. Gutenberg’s innovation was a synthetic innovation based on the screw press.

Agile practice can encourage synthetic innovation, but it doesn’t need to do so. Innovation cannot be encouraged directly -- although many consultants, pundits, and leaders have tried. My observation is that three key factors support innovation:

  1. A lack of fear of failure

  2. Empowerment to experiment

  3. Diversity of ideas

The first two of these are part of the standard Agile practice lexicon. When discussing DEI, it’s usually about gender identification, race, ethnicity, or age. While these attributes can lend to innovation, diversity of ideas is more elusive.

I remember reading about Google’s early staff hires. They advertised that they were looking for people with skills developed in other industries. Page and Brin were smart enough to know that when people bring diverse experiences, the cross-pollination of ideas is likely to produce synthetic innovation.

Sadly, most talent acquisition professionals seek an “exact match” for the skills and experiences needed to fill open roles. The likelihood of cross-pollination decreases dramatically when you’re in a field full of daisies.

If you ask a field of daisies to innovate, you might get a slightly different-looking daisy. Don’t expect any birds of fire.

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