The Consequence of Innovation is Change
Lately it seems everyone is reaching for that next innovation. It has become a universal panacea to every problem. Declining business in a changing market? Innovate. Climate change? Innovate. Ever increasing competition for your product and service? Innovate. Any challenging political, social or cultural problem? Innovate. Innovation seems to be the safe answer that everyone wants to give and everyone wants to hear. After all, innovation implies progress.
But are we really able to easily accept the consequences of innovation? Especially if that usually means that, if we want to innovate, we, ourselves, also have to change?
We resist change for quite a few reasons. There are political forces against innovation. Innovation can amend or even radically change power structures. People in charge may no longer be in charge and they will resist this change. People who have status may no longer have status. People who just don’t get the innovation might be afraid of it. Finally, there are strong economic forces; innovations require new investment. They may change or even remove a business model.
As much as corporations purport to be engines of innovation, in reality they seem more engineered to resist change. As vast systems of people and processes, it’s understandable why they might fight so hard to stay as they are. Organisations usually operate in an optimised niche. They’ve understood how their niche works and are maximising their success in that niche. Innovation, therefore, is supposed to optimise this. Not change it.
As Alice Rawsthorn notes in her excellent book on design, “Hello World”,
“Most commercial design exercises are also subject to negotiation with members of other teams, such as marketing, finance, sales and engineering, who have a vested interest in the outcome but may have little enthusiasm, or understanding of, design. Typically each decision is critiqued by committee, which inevitably stacks the odds against originality or innovation. The outcome may be then submitted to consumer focus groups, thereby raising the odds again. The investment required to develop a new product, or to modify elements of an old one, can be so high that making the wrong choice can be costly, financially and reputationally. No wonder corporate design culture is often conservative, and so many products end up looking the same.” - Hello World
Even as individuals, without committees to fetter our ideas, we often resist change. When was the last time you did something outside your comfort zone? It could be something that disrupted your carefully balanced and efficient life Or took time to consider something outside your usual status quo. Either way, it doesn’t happen often.
Which is why true disruptive innovations appear to come from left field, from people and organisations with more freedom to push forward with ideas. Or it could be those less to lose from the change.
For example, consider telecommunications. When the first mobile phones appeared they controlled access to the calls, the messages, fledgling music stores, applications; the entire ecosystem. Fifteen years ago, my phone was branded Ericsson, but it was really dominated by the telecommunications provider. The network had installed its own custom software right at the heart of the phone’s operating system. The phone was both locked and controlled by the network.
A few years later Apple innovated the form factor, interfaces and more importantly the application ecosystem around mobile phones. Despite pressure from telecommunications network providers, Apple produced a first generation phone mostly free of their features.
“Apple refused to comply with the networks’ demands and produced an exemplar of intuitive user interfaced design for the iPhone. Sadly, few other companies are courageous enough to do the same, and can unwittingly create impediments of their own.” - Hello World
The telecommunications providers have since struggled to adapt to a landscape that has changed. They have tried many times to find new ways to fit in the relationship between people and their devices. Though the telecommunications provider still provides the bandwidth, that relationship is far more commoditised than it once was.
Examples of people resistant to change abound through history:
In aviation, the first female pilots to fly across the Atlantic had to do so with one or more male co-pilots. The threat of a capable female was too much for the established patriarchy of the time. Eventually trailblazing women took to the air on their own, but only after resisting the status quo for long enough to win their freedom.
In healthcare, the Austrian doctor, Semmelweis, who first proposed that hand-washing was essential to keeping patients healthy, an effective process innovation, was forced out of medicine by his peers and into an insane asylum.
The computer was famously seen as a niche device. Large providers like IBM focused on large corporations until hobbyists like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others, tinkering at the edge of the marketplace, forced change. IBM’s personal computing offerings never recovered.
Kodak film, one of the largest companies of its kind, failed to respond to the change prompted by the innovation of digital photography. As a result it shrunk radically from it’s original size.
We talk about innovation and we celebrate it. However, if the real consequence of true innovation is change, then are we really prepared to accept that change for everything that it represents? Because the reality is that we usually resist it with everything we have.
BBC (1997) The Century of Flight (Documentary). BBC: United Kingdom.
Rawsthorn, Alice (2014) Hello World: Where Design Meets Life. Harry N. Abrams: United Kingdom.
Hardy, Quentin (2015) At Kodak, Clinging to a Future Beyond Film. New York Times. Retrieved March 2015 from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/business/at-kodak-clinging-to-a-future-beyond-film.html.
Wikipedia (2019) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contemporary_reaction_to_Ignaz_Semmelweis.
Film Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash.