Innovation, shiny toasters and the pedlars of bull!

I’m fed up of all the bull being peddled about innovation.

There’s a particular type of proselytism that has emerged from the open collared, soft shoed, jacket juxtaposing, ikea-esque, media trained, expensive lack of haircut, i-everything, shiny-grinned consultancy brigade. These Innovatists pepperpot their well coiffured zoomy presentation thingy, with phrases like “socio-technical” and “prefix-leaderism” and an extraordinary range of uses for that word … “innovate”.

They love to say things like “innovation defies definition” and “for me, it speaks to” and various other excuses for why they can make up bull with no provenance, other than some other Innovatist once said it. Some classics:

“Innovation is new thinking”
“Innovation is a mindset”
“Innovation is bringing the new ideas successfully to market”
“Innovation is generating creativity”
“Innovation is the relentless pursuit of a better society”
“Innovation is realising your vision”
“Innovation is optimising your resources”
“Innovation is please buy my new book”
“Innovation is (insert whatever the bloke with the chequebook wants to hear)”

Unfortunately, there has been a veritable tsunami of published donkey doodoo emblazoned with “innovation” from the world of technology. Despite all the codswallop they peddle, the message distills down to – “innovation is a slightly shinier toaster” – as they perpetually beg you to believe that 5.1.1 will revolutionise your life in a way that 5.1.0 simply could not! The Bugatti, by the way is a fabulous toaster, retailing at around £150.

Oh God, now I’ve remembered the ubiquitous innovation awards! The ceremonial attribution of fawning from some old geezer to someone younger and prettier, for one of three things:

1. Doing their job properly according to some policy.
2. Implementing an idea that’s been around for ages, properly.
3. Something geeky from a quirky corner of the organisation.

I know this is a stupid idea. I know people are so wedded to their favourite nomenclature that they’ll only translate what I say back into comfortable words. But despite my curmudgeonly cynicism, I am a hopeless optimist, so here goes … What is innovation?

The best way to answer that involves using the word ‘asset’ in its technical sense, to help simplify a few descriptions. An asset is an economic resource:

“anything tangible that is capable of being owned or controlled to produce value and one that is held to have positive economic value; plus anything intangible that can be influenced or used to provide advantage and increase the value potential of other assets.”


The concept of innovation is much easier to grasp if you also rule out what innovation is not. To make that meaningful, I’ll use the analogy of how a typical organisation may engage in different types of change.

Exploitation: “protecting assets you already got”
A strange word to describe organisational change, but it is a legitimate model and I do mean to convey a slightly dark idea. All assets die, wear out, become defunct and even in terms of staff and skills, will eventually leave the business head first or feet first. The whole notion of change is driven by maintaining the integrity of the asset, whether it’s a copyright, a soda pop or a fractal microwave array. This mode works best where the activity is creative; as in doing, making or growing things with your hands that weren’t there yesterday. A nurse can literally create a bandage on a patient and at the end, still own the ability to create another one. If the nurse had created the first ever bandage, then the word ‘created’ could be swapped for the word ‘invented’ but it’s essentially a physical mode of change. Organisations that orient themselves around exploiting an asset, often originally invented it. So make the most of it while you got it, as assets of this nature may have decades of utility before they eventually kark it. This is not innovating, this is milking an asset.

Revolution: “optimising assets by moving them around”
You will all be familiar with this pantomime. Rearranging, reorganising, restructuring, sorting, tidying, choosing a different shape, a visionary future state and then project managing the alignment of assets into the preferred shape. In healthcare we love a bit of implementation! Especially when it’s all wrapped up in a bow by a new Leaderist under the title of, transformation. The middle managers then disappear off into a room and come out 18 months later, all wearing each others badges. There is also a debilitating illusion of activity associated with this adoption style change. It’s wrapped up in various splendid terminology but essentially means, redesigning processes. Not redesigning the assets themselves, just changing the order in which they line up. The ultimate in mechanistic mentalities, this stuff works brilliantly when your organisation is a giant machine with the odd organic part, buggering up the perfection. The field is swamped with Systems Tinkers peddling business process re-engineering, but despite this, there’s potentially a huge benefit in connecting up your assets in relationships that are mutually reinforcing. However, it only works when done by those with deep and rich insight into the true nature of the asset and its contingent context, not by Tinkers, Leaderists and other Tourists farting about at the periphery. Despite this, pretty much every Innovatist on the planet will happily flog it as innovative to anyone stupid enough. This is not innovating, this is rearranging your assets.

Evolution: “adapting assets amidst continuous feedback”
Apart from a few creationists, most people seem to intuitively understand what this is all about. Small changes over long periods of time that enhance the performance of an asset toward an increasingly specialist or efficient capability. Sometimes called survival of the fittest, this specialisation is heavily dependent on the surrounding conditions and the availability of continuous feedback. There will be dominant predators and they will survive a very long time until the environmental conditions shift and the Sabretooth Effect kicks in (the big teeth become irrelevant). This is a prolific form of change but it is a bit slow and difficult to direct or accelerate. In traditional ‘make-stuff’ work, it’s an obvious product development, refining the asset itself. In ‘know-stuff’ work, where practitioners polish and hone capabilities across an entire life-time, this is much more powerful albeit less tangible. To continue the ecological metaphor, you must let these things breed, so that the next generation inherit the good genes. This is not innovating, this is fine tuning an asset.

Innovation: “exapting assets to greater utility”
What the hell is that word? Those who study evolution discovered that incremental adaptation was not the only mode of natural change. Nature created a way of making sudden, relatively fast, sideways jumps forward. Where a specialist trait had evolved for a particular purpose, it created an ability to do something else that turned out to be more useful. The most famous example is the feathers that adapted in dinosaurs for temperature regulation. One day, a rather featherly little one, pegged it over a cliff to escape a bitey big one and glided away to safety. The feathers adapted for regulation then exapted for flight. There are literally thousands of contemporary examples of the same mode of change. Taking a tiny accelerometer designed to lift the heads off a dropped hard disc to prevent it destroying your data; and using it to swivel the orientation of a tiny screen, has ended up solving problems you didn’t know you had, prior to April 2010. I’m ashamed of myself for using a technological example – as the innovation resides in the idea NOT the device – but new utility is an artefact of scientific advancement. To reiterate, innovation is absolutely not confined to devices, but the concept of a gadget is useful to understand this mode of change. A gadget has a secondary function which is more useful and most importantly, more entertaining than its primary function. There is certainly a psychological, or more accurately, a gamified underpinning to most innovations. You find them when you play. This is innovating, this is doing something new with an old asset.

Exploration: “discovering potential assets”
This is the loosest, rarest and most unreliable form of change with the biggest risks and the greatest rewards. Finding an asset you never knew you had, or someone somewhere who has already solved your problem, or simply wandering off with no real intention, just full of curiosity. Exploration normally involves a conflagration of all the other modes of change nudging a maverick, towards an accident that doesn’t kill them (that last part is sufficient but not really necessary). It’s extremely hard to control or direct, it takes a lot of energy and in organisations, is usually facilitated by a crisis or an extraordinary event that renders the usual rules null and void. You may take risks, learn fast and do some of your best and worst work all at the same time. It is not sustainable. Working like this will eventually beat you up and burn you out. Outside big organisations however, an Explorer can wander beyond the usual constraints and it’s incredibly fulfilling, out amongst the artisans and the weirdos. All the major steps in civilisation begin at the delicate edges of culture not in the comfortable middle. This is not innovating, this is spotting a new asset.

Avoiding Failure

The order in which these are described is very important, as the 5 archetypes follow a trajectory of decreasing constraint and increasing unpredictability.  All great ideas start loose with exploration and end up being milked to death. We all die, get over it and make the most of what you got while you got it. Nature will sort the recycling. As a species we have evolved to be much better at avoiding other people’s mistakes, than mimicking their successes.

It’s also critical to accept that none of these archetypes are in any way, better or worse than the others. They are simply different and equally valid or valuable when deployed for the right reason, in the right way and under conducive conditions. A lovely phrase from complexity science: bounded applicability. So whether you are milking an old idea, implementing a different idea, tuning a great idea or spotting a new idea, you are doing fabulous stuff and you should be proud. But it’s not innovating.

Defeating the Bull Pedlars

Fascinatingly, innovation is far more common than most people think. In a typical health organisation, there will be innovative practice almost every day; where a practitioner has responded to an atypical situation with a neat little twist of practice, beyond the ordinary. The inconvenient truth about innovation is that it is mostly serendipitous, so those day to day innovations are situationally specific. They neither translate nor scale beyond that situation and are lost to the daily ambiguity of empirical clinical practice.

Very occasionally one of these serendipitous moments creates a shift in perspective. A way of seeing the world, or at least a tiny part of it, in a new light and once you’ve seen it, you can’t go back. It’s why innovation is so challenging for organisations, it disrupts the schemas that the organisation is built on. Those in positions of power can rarely accept, or even see, the utility of the innovation as it challenges the ideas that got them into their positions of power.

In fact, if your idea creates an allergic reaction amongst a few of the Leaderists, it’s a fair indication of a true innovation.


Innovations are the products of loosely coupled interactions within networks, not tightly coupled control within hierarchies. It’s why most innovations are brought to light by people who have just left a big organisation that wasn’t listening. You don’t need the bull pedlars to sell you innovation, you probably already got it. Just leave the meeting room full of curiosity and wander off for a while. It doesn’t really matter how many exec teams you send off around the world to look at splendid things or how much of other peoples innovations you squirt over your organisation like a deodorant. There is only one way to get more innovation and that is… to do it yourself. Be Innovative!

There is a swathe of very old methods to create the space for innovative thinking and practice to emerge, but we’re not taught them in school. Don’t get me started on the university treadmills and the mediocrity obsessed business schools. They have a lot to answer for. Adopt, Adapt and Exapt are often confused, so the next time some shiny Innovatist whips out his zoomy presentation thingy, simply ask two questions:

1. Who invented the the idea? (Because if they don’t know, stop there)
2. What problem did they solve? (Because it’ll only work for that problem)

Just doing what I can to protect the naive, from the pedlars of bull!

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