Innovation and it’s variants (innovative, innovator) are being thrown around a lot lately, so much so that their meanings are starting to become unclear. It reminds me of two decades ago when everyone was using the term webmaster (ick!). It’s one of those terms that sort of sounds like a moniker for someone who wears a superhero costume to the mall. It feels wierd.
A truly innovative person is someone who has an unbridled focus on optimizing anything that needs it, even when the need for it may not be clear to others.
There’s the old adage, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Then there’s a more optimistic (or is it pessimistic?) view that basically everything is at least a little broken. Innovation isn’t about setting out to make everything better, it’s about putting focus on the things that could save a people time, energy, irritation, or resources, if only someone figured out a way to minimize the annoyance or reduce that loss. Some might say that standing in line for five minutes isn’t a big deal, and in the grand scheme of things, it might not be. But if you stand in that line once a week, at the end of a year, you will have wasted 4 hours standing in line. Multiply that by the number of people who are actually in the line, and the wasted human potential is unbelievable!
True innovation is not just about coming up with a new, better way to do something. It’s about coming up with a new, better way to do something that takes into account all of the conditions that led to the current situation. It’s understanding the business, the politics, the market, and the social and tactile aspects of the problem, and incorporating them all into a revised solution. It also requires someone who can bounce back and forth across the line between optimism and pessimism quickly and frequently. Too much optimism and they’re not being realistic. Too much pessimism and they’re just being a curmudgeon. They have to first be optimistic enough to say, “this could be improved if we…” followed by instantly thinking, “but the problem with trying that is…”, then revising their solution and repeating that circle of thinking over and over until a truly better solution emerges. In short, it’s incredibly complex, and its value should not be underestimated.
Given unlimited resources, there’s no end to the ideas people can dream up. The problem is, they fail to account for the fact that resources are limited. Innovations are all the things that people dream up after taking those limits into account. The more unique, original, or surprising the final product, the more innovative it truly is.