17 Jun Coming to grips with the new pace of innovation
Do you ever get the feeling that you’re looking into a rearview mirror watching the world catch up, even though you’re going at top speed?
A few days ago, I came across a YouTube video that I thought was very cool. It was a BMW commercial about a kinetic sculptor. If you haven’t seen this video yet, take a look because your jaw will drop. His work is the ideal mash-up of innovation, creativity, engineering, and art. If I ever figure out a way to convince my wife to let me retire, this is the sort of stuff I want to end up doing.
One of the first things I did after viewing the video was to call my 11-year-old daughter over to watch it. She was duly impressed. But, as is usually the case whenever I try to impress her with my techno-savvy, she immediately turned around and decided to show me the YouTube videos she had uncovered. It’s nice when your kids think enough of you actually share their view of world, but I inevitably walk away from these encounters feeling as though I am forever falling behind. It seems that my leading edge is always anchored by some kind of generational lead weight, while her leading edge knows no such burden.
The only consolation here is that I am far from alone. My experience lately has reinforced the perception that there is a growing rift between generations around the topic of innovation. Kids see innovation as being something that happens in a million small increments a million times each day. They are not daunted by innovation because innovation is not a boil-the-ocean strategy. Those of us on the other side of the generational divide look for the big-bang innovations. We grew up in world where inventions took decades to develop and decades to grow. These kids have grown up in a world where innovation is rampant, happening in increments of weeks, days, and hours.
Kids today are living in an open model of the world – a model that is not confined by closed systems of innovation. Their laboratory has no walls; it has no organization. They interact with each other across every border we regarded as sacrosanct, whether an office door, an enterprise organization chart, or a national border. Watch the way open systems from software development to Wikipedia have taken hold and you catch a glimpse of this. This new generation accepts that innovation involves thousands of pieces of ideas, in millions of pieces of gray matter, that can somehow free form spontaneously into new stuff – cool stuff. We don’t want to believe that. We want to engineer change. We want to architect innovation. We want to control invention. If you feel your defenses rising and your blood boiling then you and I know exactly which side of the “gennovation” chasm you’re on.
As is the case with YouTube, I especially enjoy watching the way marketing is evolving as a leading indicator of social attitudes towards change, and I see the dramatic shift that just about turns classic marketing on its head. Today’s marketing is crude, inexpensive, personal, instantaneous, and horribly temporal. It’s what’s called Managed Spontaneity in Red Herring, and virtually every company trying to reach the under 20 demographic is turning to it.
I know what you’re thinking, “But that’s just marketing, real innovation of products is different; it takes much more structure.”
I’m not saying that innovation and change do not need architecture, forethought, or effort. They do, but not as we once knew it. In software development, the AGILE movement is a good analogy. It used to be that you would build software and then, once you knew what the software was supposed to do, you would build a test case to see if it worked. Today the technology of software development is so open and rapid that the tests have to be written before the software is written. Ready – Fire – Aim, as the saying goes.
For someone who talks so much about innovation, I have to wonder how much of what it’s evolving into I will never really understand, can never really understand, because I’ve just been wired in a different way by my education and experience.
But the bottom line is inescapable: you just can’t innovate in this new world using old ideas any better than you can mess with quantum engineering using Newtonian physics. If you want to stay and play in the Innovation Zone, you had better learn to manage spontaneity and thrive on it.
Let’s hope, at least for those of us who are looking in the rearview mirror – otherwise retirement may be a whole lot closer than it appears.
Recent articles by Tom Koulopoulos
• Tom Koulopoulos: iTunes shows innovation is about imagination, not dollars
• Tom Koulopoulos: Generation gap working in favor of innovation
• Tom Koulopoulos: Musical mentoring and New Year’s reflections have much in common
• Tom Koulopoulos: Painful technology: Can you hear me now?
• Leveling a top-heavy world, one laptop at a time
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