Why the delusion of innovation hinders our growth
Here’s the thing about innovation—if you get caught up in all of the hype and the buzzwords, and you don’t take time to truly gain a richer understanding of what said innovation means and how it can help, what do you really have?
This is a question that Andy Russell, Ph.D., wants people to take a long, hard look at. Doing so is something that Russell’s group, The Maintainers, believes serves in the best interest of everyone involved. The Maintainers are a global research network that is interested in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the many forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world. Its members come from a variety of backgrounds—engineers and business leaders, academic historians and social scientists, government and non-profit agencies, artists, activists, coders, and the list goes on.
“It is important to keep maintenance and innovation in balance. Even really innovative companies need to provision for the maintenance and sustainability of the new products or services that they roll out.”
— Andy Russell, Co-director, The Maintainers
Russell, who serves as co-director, says that when it comes to innovation, people tend to only think about the end products—the gadgets and consumer goods. But what they need is to appreciate, in a more holistic and realistic way, is the work that goes into bringing the positive aspects of innovation to consumers.
According to a McKinsey & Company report, 90% of executives believe that the COVID-19 crisis will fundamentally change the way they do business over the next five years, with 85% concerned that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on their customers’ needs and wants over the same time period.
These are the kind of numbers Russell believes print executives should pay close attention to moving forward. “It’s important to start with good data and a clear understanding of the world around us,” says Russell, who also is Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. “Leaders of companies or organizations also can play a big role by reflecting on what values they think are important, and what they need to do to sustain those values. In many cases, maintenance goes hand-in-hand with deeply held values, such as caring, community, sustainability, reliability and respect for tradition.”
From where Russell sits, innovation continues to be a foundational concept in business and many other aspects of global society. It remains deeply embedded in 21st Century notions of progress, economic growth and other positive outcomes—despite the fact that most attempts at innovation fail and that many developments touted as “innovations” incur steep costs.
“There is a delusion when it comes to innovation,” Russell says. “This comes in the form of a false belief that innovation can cure all kinds of societal problems, whether it’s slow growth in business, poor outcomes in education, or massive gaps in the social safety net. The fact is that innovation can exacerbate existing problems, rather than cure them. Notable innovations of this sort include highly addictive drugs such as fentanyl, and financial arrangements such as credit default swaps that were at the root of the global financial crisis of the early 2000s.”
When delusion sets in, Russell says it can draw a company’s attention away from its core competencies and most loyal customers, and distract leadership and workforce from executing on the fundamentals—key tenets like reliability, consistency, quality—that every business needs to succeed.
“It is important to keep maintenance and innovation in balance,” Russell says. “Even really innovative companies need to provision for the maintenance and sustainability of the new products or services that they roll out. Otherwise, they will earn a reputation for abandoning their products and customers, because they have neglected to maintain the products and relationships that generate value over the long-term.”
Finding the silver lining
The pandemic and all the havoc it has wreaked on everything and anything in its path has taken each of us to the limits of our resolve. But as we sift through the disruption that the past year has wrought, there has been one silver lining beaming brightly in the distance—the pandemic has drawn our attention to the hollowness of the popular term “disruption,” or, in the popular phrase, “disruptive innovation.”
Today, perhaps more than any other time, we have a greater understanding and awareness of the immense contributions of essential workers. In addition, the pandemic has forced many companies to innovate into spaces that they may have once deemed unrelatable.
“The pandemic has impacted us all,” says RJ Hines, an executive board member and advisor with Pro Cloud SaaS. “What we have seen is great firms rising to the occasion and dedicating additional resources to compensate for what was happening. What has made you successful? Is that still relevant? Are you still delivering that product or service at a high level?”
Pandemic be damned, Hines believes the tidal wave of technology enhancements will continue to roll on, with a caveat. “I think there needs to be a balance with reliable infrastructure coming to mind. True innovation can only happen when your core deliverables, customer support, logistics, etc., are running smoothly. Innovation alone will not maximize a company’s long-term success.”
But what will, Hines says, is the industry’s commitment to finding balance. Somewhere in the spaces where people think innovation can strip you of what brought you to the dance, stay focused, and don’t believe everything that you hear.
“True innovation can only happen when your core deliverables, customer support, logistics, etc., are running smoothly. Innovation alone will not maximize a company’s long-term success.”
— RJ Hines, Executive Board Member and Advisor, Pro Cloud SaaS
Which leads back to the question that many ask when they are standing at the edge of an innovation revolution: Is there a delusion when it comes to innovation?
As an example, Hines references one of the print industry’s long-running delusional battles—the demise of print as we know it. “Print is not dead,” he says. “It can very effectively compliment a firm’s marketing message and brand persona. It now must be co-mingled in a multi- or omni-channel marketing strategy. This is where companies should not fool themselves. Hire experts who can seamlessly integrate digital and print marketing into a cost effective ROI generating segment of a companies’ overall business strategy.”
To summarize, learn to innovate and do it now.