What’s so new about innovation?

It used to be that everyone spent their time talking about design.

In the early years of the web, that was enough ‘new’ for most of us: digital, social, mobile. They all meant new ways of making things. And so design could change the world. It was the silver bullet.

User-centred thinking was new – not to the design world, but to the web community. That was the innovation. People had to learn new things. Those who knew about computers had to understand people. Those who understood people had to get to grips with the computer stuff.

Now everyone knows about design, and quite a bit about technology.

So now everyone’s in innovation – doing new things. Certainly not websites or apps or things like that. No, just new things. Having got caught on the hop by the last big new things, companies are keen to plan for the next big new things. Agencies, of course, are keen to oblige. And so we’re awash with innovation work. If not, perhaps, any actual innovation.

And, whatever else you’ve missed, you can’t have missed just how quickly it’s all happening. When I was a kid, we had to wait years for new things to happen. Remember the BBC Micro? That was “new” for about five years. Now you’re lucky if you’ve plugged in your latest shiny gadget before it’s lost its newness.

You’ve scarcely had time to screw your HD TV to the wall when it’s gone out of fashion. You’re tragically outmoded by 2k. Don’t buy one of those though. There’ll be a 50k TV in a minute – its more life-like than real life. And people don’t watch TV any more anyway.

The agenda is ‘catch up’, ‘keep up’, ‘get ahead’, but the tools are the same. We had enough headaches getting management to accept personas, user journeys, agile, user testing and all that stuff, there seems to be little appetite to consider whether we should stick with these approaches for the next phase of the journey.

At last, design and digital have a semblance of predictability. We wouldn’t want to throw out that baby with the bath water of slightly different challenges.

But design thinking and design management won’t do it. Because the barriers preventing managers from accepting radical new departures aren’t about doing things slightly differently, they’re about doing things totally differently.

As this article in Harvard Business Review argues the term innovation is simply too broad. This is true. One man’s innovation might be another’s slow evolution. But when we are talking about the most extreme forms of “new”, we are also talking about the most extreme challenges in terms of diverting from the status quo.

To succeed with breakthrough (or ‘revolutionary’) innovation requires greater changes in thinking and leadership.

That’s just the sort of challenge we’ve approached in our new book Unthinkable. How can companies step out of the assumptions they make every day, move away from the customers they serve daily and the partners and suppliers they know well, to do something completely new?

Sign up (right or below) to hear more about the book.