Innovation in Business

Jul 15

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a talk to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge in which he espoused his vision for the ascendancy of education in our budding republic. He draws on some rich analogy in his arguments, and even admonishes that American universities must “aim not to drill, but to create”, lest they begin to “recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.”

While books are one of the primary resources he cites to facilitate education, he gave the following caution:

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.

I think often about the books I read and question my relationship to them. I have observed that when a book becomes popular (e.g. a best seller), its gravity increases. I have also found that when a book provides me with a very clear and and relevant answer to a problem I have, the remaining contents of the book tend to increase in gravity. A book’s popularity and apparent relevance are good cues, but they can also interfere with the development of our own systems, making us satellites to the ideas they present.

Creation is the Goal

Businesses need men and women, leaders and managers, who create. When considering what qualifies as innovation in business, it’s important to acknowledge that books, while essential, do not in themselves qualify as innovation. They should instead server to inspire us to create something new, novel and meaningful.

In addition to books, there are numerous programs, seminars, certifications, etc. which, if adopted whole hog (so to speak), may put businesses at risk of becoming satellites rather than systems. Some examples might include:

  • Six Sigma
  • Scrum
  • Off shoring
  • Restructuring

I’m not suggesting that there’s no benefit in adding off shore resources to increase capacity or implementing Scrum for software development. Those can be very successful approaches and can enable businesses in very creative and effective ways. My concern is that these will be blindly adopted and applied simply because they have so much gravity; I worry that managers will fail to evaluate a new tool or activity against the larger business system to ensure support for desired outcomes, which would put them at risk of becoming satellites, forever searching for the next idea that will satisfy inarticulate results..

Innovation requires a strong sense of identity and a clear view of the outcomes (and corresponding activities) that will make a business thrive. Once obtained, books, programs and other resources may serve to inspire business leaders to truly innovate.

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