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What is innovation to you? #rediscoverinnovation

Posted by Moe Ba (Admin) Jul 28, 2019 Posted in Innovation

Six years ago, Wired Magazine described the word innovation as “not important” in an article titled “Innovation: The Most Important and Overused Word in America”. They were on to something. Innovation has become the most abused word in many circles including, policy makers and career bureaucrats. That is something to have a deep breath about. Innovation by all accounts seem antithetical to bureaucracy, but it actually is not.

Innovation is about change and change is inevitable

If you are willing to reframe your thoughts, you will actually see that innovation is simply about change, and today change is inevitable. I am being dramatic using the term “bureaucrats”, but in reality they are managers who work for organizations that need to be efficient to survive. You might be one of these managers, at the city level, in a government, or private sector. For you to become a bureaucrat, you were probably caught in many unproductive habits in your organization. As a result, you or people you know might feel paralyzed because new ideas are not finding a conducive culture to flourish.

In the Oslo manual, OECD defines “Innovation as the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), or process, a new marketing method, or a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations”. ICT affects business model, mindsets, organizational structures, R&D, markets, network; therefore, ICT centric innovation can contribute to significant growth and inclusion in economies that are increasingly digital, global and interconnected. This change impacts our communities, and we need to know how to leverage innovation to optimize opportunities.

Often, I am bombarded by comments from people who thinks that innovation should be led by one person, particulary the creative type. This is a misunderstanding. Innovation is a team sport, except there are specific type of people that you want in the core team. However, everybody has a role to play in innovation, and the sooner you understand this, the better off your community will positively navigate change.

Innovation is a system issue

In my first ecosystem review of a country four years ago, we noted that "In the early days of academic research on innovation, stimulating innovation was thought to be a linear process. In this model, science produces technology and technology delivers products and services in response to market need. Unfortunately, this perspective does not reflect the dynamism of the innovation process, which includes a variety of factors interacting together such as R&D investment, but also talent pools, culture, economic conditions, markets, and investment, among many others". Innovation is therefore a complex issue.

Thus innovation can be seen as a system issue where different building blocks need to have coordinated actions to drive result. These coordinated actions allow an innovator to develop new products and services that achieve economic value.  For ICT centric innovation, ITU has developed a comparable Innovation Framework with 30 interlinked building blocks to help assess a country ability to navigate technological changes and innovate. Imagine the complexity of such interlinkages in a dynamic and open system, as opposed to closed system. Failure in any component will impact your ability to produce ICT innovation, and the changing environment impact it too.

The building blocks of this system provide essential ingredients such as the vision and strategy setting a direction, infrastructure where the innovation can take place, talent and champions to drive the change, resources and programmes that deliver result, market and network where innovation find a footing, culture and communities fuelling innovation, and policies that underpin everything. These ingredients are applicable whether you are a country, a community or an organization.

Innovation needs a purpose and intrinsic motivation. One principle for any system is its goal. Innovation needs to focus on solving a problem. A civil servant could be delivering better services to citizens. An entrepreneur could be developing an application software to address an opportunity. An organization could be reinventing its products and services to remain competitive. Everyone has a job-to-be-done that they would like done better. That’s where innovation comes in.

Innovation without a purpose is a bad habit

These bad habits, or culture, spread like a virus. Breaking them up is very difficult. No one remembers when they started. I am sure you have seen this infestation before. One day you woke up and realized that the whole place was infested, including yourself.

Your organization is now officially a bureaucracy, you started not liking your job, your community leaders are divided, and everyone want a claim to the throne. If it sounds like the real life movie “Game of Thrones, that is because it might be. Bureaucracy is an innovation killer. If you have a good intrinsic motivation and a purpose to change the world, you might be able to adapt - but your environment will slow you down.

“An ineffective virus kill its host, while an effective virus doesn’t”. Someone has to clean the bad virus, otherwise it might kill every living thing in your environment. Trust is hard to build, but easy to loose. At some point trust need to be rebuild, and innovation has to happen before the organization dies. How do we proactively manage this tragedy waiting to happen in your community? 

Innovation is about risk management

Innovation is a data issue. You are hoping to get enough data to make the right decision. And if you don’t have enough data, then you want to quickly test the market. The biggest risk in any new proposal is the “unknown unknown”. To know what you don’t know, you need to experiment quickly and get a big enough sample to have some pointers. The old marketing segmentation strategy or an ideological driven strategy can no longer cut it in our hyper connected world.  This goes without saying that the person with the biggest dataset will have a better chance at innovating. This is why data is the new oil and creativity methodologies are cool.

Managers are risk adverse by definition. So you need leadership who believes and empower innovators to take risk. If not, your chances of success are limited. The more knowledgeable resources you have on your side, the higher your change of knowing the unknown. You will also need a portfolio of experiments to increase your chances of success, but be aware of resource hogs and organizational silos.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, says Albert Einstein. Organizational units are established to keep resources on an entitlement basis and focus on the unit output. The older a unit, the more established in their ways, and the more resources they have accumulated over the year working on the same thing.  There is a need for disruption in older organizational units to spread resources and weaken bureaucracy so innovation flourish.

There are few ways to create disruption of organizational units, some more effective than others. I have been through many re-organization with Silicon Valley companies. Every time it was triggered by some external factors (aka market or competitor). We jokingly called the changes as “people changing shirts”, but the culture stayed the same. The organization leaders were hoping for the best, but they were almost always wrong. This is a mistake as growth need a mindset change from people.

Innovation is about people

How do we stop our bad habits, these viruses that are making your organization or community less fit and agile? Stopping bad habits means that you need to change the cue, the routine, or the reward. If you find yourself in a hostile environment, there is a simple test to determine how conducive to innovation your environment is.

There are four essential pillars to this test for your community: how people communicate, how they manage hierarchies, how they resolve tensions, and how they navigate networks and access resources. If you can diagnose how people behave in your community, then you can start addressing the underlying culture that is spreading bad habits. You can find new routines for communicating, resolving tension, leveraging networks and  resources, and dealing with the hierarchical command and control world. Innovation needs emergent behaviours and cannot fourish in a command and control world.

The more lasting solutions are built in the DNA of your community. Constantly rotating people or having spaces for disruption provides some options in bureaucratic organizations. These proactive approaches have benefits as well as challenges. It has to be done with a purpose and aligned to the organization core businesses.  Injecting "new blood" with the right mindset can also accelerate the cultural transformation. So, don't be afraid to let foreign talent with the right skillsets in your ecosystem, or younger talent with the right attitude in your organization. Change is inevitable, be prepared.

Are you ready to be an innovation champion?

It is often said that, the biggest fear is the “fear leading to fear”. Don’t be afraid of change, as long as you are prepared. Think about climbing Mount Everest for example, you wouldn’t go on that expedition without the right team, skillsets, tools, a strategy and plan. Would you?  

If you are passionate about ICT centric Innovation, you should bring the odds in your favour.  Be an innovation champion, join this community. Share your comments with us.


About the Author

Moe BaMoe Ba leads the Innovation Programme for the Development Sector at the International Telecommunication Union, the UN specialized agency for ICT/Telecommunication.

His role is to help strengthen ITU Membership capacity to accelerate digital transformation. His passion is to help communities unlock their potentials through stakeholder empowerment and connecting opportunities to resources.

Prior to joining ITU, Mr. Ba spent several years in the private sector including working in Silicon Valley and internationally. He is an expert on innovation policy and the development of platforms focused on innovation, ICT and telecommunication.

This article is written in a personal capacity and doesn't engage the organization that I am currently working for.

This post was edited on Aug 4, 2019 by Moe Ba

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Comments (11)

Mohamed Ali Abdoulkader says... Jul 28, 2019

Today, people talk too much about innovation, but I think that, as you have made clear, innovation is only one thing that allows people to break their habits, and personally, innovation is for me an entity that allows us to live in a better world by following the rapid development of technology.
But too much innovation kills innovation and what I've learned from you is that innovation is just a development tool. Let us be together the leaders of our own development.

Moe Ba says... Jul 28, 2019

This is true, the hype about innovation is annoying. Innovation is a process and technology is a tool and not the root cause of change. People have a tendency to mix everything up. It makes innovation nothing and everything.

This is why i like the Olso manual definition of innovation, the system concept of innovation, the opportunities ICT  brings in impacting innovation ( as defined above), and the job-to-be-done concept which breathes it a framework and purpose.

Patrick Obumselu says... Jul 28, 2019
Wow! Innovation is not one person's job. most times we are tempted to hoard, but as true leaders we understand that you must have a productive team. Innovation is about people.
Vemana chary deshoju says... Jul 28, 2019

Thanks Moe,

You have given the  more clarity on innovation and how it can  be connected to smart cities digital  challenge.Whatever the product released by Innovative principle method, has to  make the Smart cities to Sustainable Smart cities to meet with the KPI points.

Jane Del Rosario says... Jul 28, 2019

A great blog!

This is an eye-opener to people who misinterpreted innovation as automatic solution to all problem they have in the community, business or organisation without their cooperation and commitment to change. It also explained very well that innovation is not only exclusive for tangible things and immaterial to other things.

Really, if we want change, we need to start innovating ourselves.

Thank you for sharing this one.

Barbara Laurenceau says... Jul 31, 2019

Thank you, indeed a great blog!

And I would also love to use the comparable Innovation Framework for the systemic analysis for the work we are doing with technology for/by/with the youth in sub Saharan Africa. It looks very useful and relevant especially for ICT centric innovation that is really a double challenge to me (as a perfect "bureaucrat" working for the UN for more than 15 years) : we first need to break the habits of doing business as usual (innovation dimension) and in parallel use and/or support the development of technologies in an inclusive perspective while we are no technical experts (tech dimension)...

ICT centric innovation is definitely a long journey. It  can certainly make wonders but also give grey hair :) Please continue to inspire and guide us !

Moe Ba says... Jul 31, 2019

Thanks for feedback. Btw, I refuse to be a bureaucrat,  but i think i got infected a few times. You just need to have the growth mindset to get rid of these deadly viruses.

Definitely we can chat about all these tools we created at ITU. May be we need a serious offline conversation.

Gabriela Ribeiro Lopes says... Aug 1, 2019
Innovation for me is a simple thing that we won't imagine and we need. It is a great blog.
Emeka Ekeocha says... Aug 8, 2019

It is innovating for me but the problem we are having here in African it is rare for government to supports Innovation in Africa.

Ayat Salem says... Aug 11, 2019
We have to define the innovation and the entrepreneurship clearly in ICT sector.
Ayat Salem says... Aug 11, 2019
We have to define the innovation and the entrepreneurship clearly in ICT sector.

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