“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” – Albert Einstein
Innovation involves people. They’re involved in creating the ideas that underpin innovation and they are involved in using the innovation once it’s in the wild. There’s no getting around people’s involvement in creating and spreading something new.
Which is why it’s odd that the people aspect of innovation gets so little attention. I guess that the emotional appeal of the grand idea tends to attract our attention; or the uber-entrepreneur as the hero of our age that draws our attention from the role that people play in innovation more broadly.
The importance of people in innovation cannot be understated, however. Innovation, by almost any definition you might like to use, involves something new. A new product. A new service. A new process. In all cases, it’s the newness that makes an idea an innovation.
And it’s people that use products, services and processes. Even industrial processes or technologies need people to implement and manage them at some point in time. So their behaviors and attitudes towards those innovations matter. They matter a lot.
Take, for example, innovation in the electricity sector. There’s no shortage of good ideas being developed to better serve users of electricity. Distributed energy, energy storage, smart meters, energy pricing models, and product financing plans. But the electricity industry has been built – and is controlled – by people. People who have been schooled in the centralised management of large, complex and long lived assets. People who take a dim view of innovations which might put power quality or safety at risk. People who are (not unreasonably) tied to what has worked well in the past.
So in this case you can see the problem, when it comes to innovation. The entrepreneur comes up with a brilliant new idea. He toils ceaselessly to prove the concept, develop the value proposition and bring it to market. And the established industry isn’t interested. In fact, they might actively work to squash it. As evidence, look at renewable energy innovation. Modern wind and solar are almost 40 years old. Surely these technologies should have been adopted by now? They’re ‘too expensive’ and they can’t provide ‘predictable power’ says the establishment. True, but these issues could be overcome. If only the right thinking was in place. If only people didn’t get in the way.
As a counterpoint to this, look at the development of wearable tech. The players here are still trying to work out what wearable tech is, what it can do, should do, will do. In this space, there are no pre-existing thought patterns constraining what is possible, and innovation can progress rapidly. However, the boldness of an idea won’t mean that people start using it (Google Glass, anyone?). These people, the users, need to work through what this technology is. They need to use it in practice, and develop expectations and behaviors that support this type of innovation. Eventually we’ll see wearable tech settle into a pattern. Someone will develop a value proposition that kills the others and we’ll start down the path of constrained innovation development.
So, what’s an innovator to do? How do you deal with the role of people in the development and adoption of your brilliant idea?
Well, one place to look is the Lean Startup movement. The approach used here it so quickly and rapidly test your idea in the market and tune it to user needs before committing large wads of cash to full development. And a key part of why that works, is that it allows people to evolve along with the innovation. It allows user expectations and behaviors to evolve along with the technology, so there is a people-to-technology fit. And that’s a two-way process for which there is no shortcut, particularly as an innovation gets more and more radical, or disruptive in nature. Very seldom can an innovation ‘crash through’; it needs to bring people along with it.
So people remain a key part of innovation. They innovate and they adopt. And often people’s behaviors are a more significant challenge for an innovation than any technical hurdles the entrepreneur needs to overcome.
As Albert Einstein pointed out, in order to change the world, people need to change their thinking. And nowhere is that more important than in innovation.