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Reflections From an Innovation Road Warrior

Reflections From an Innovation Road Warrior

TrainI am reporting to you this month from Marrakech, Morocco, where I just had the honor of keynoting a huge phosphates conference that attracted delegates from 47 countries. Turns out that Morocco controls 80 percent of the world’s phosphate (who knew?), and state-owned OCP, the event’s sponsor, wants to encourage innovation in the sustainable use of phosphates. If used improperly in fertilizers, phosphates can turn rivers green with algae, and wreak all kinds of environmental damage.

The value of conferences like this one is in how they can speed up the pace of innovation. Thirteen hundred researchers, producers, journalists, and industry partners gathered to exchange ideas in a vital area – sustainable agriculture — that has seen surprisingly little of it to date. The efforts of these collaborators will be to help farmers in developing countries better understand their soil, cut wasteful fertilizer and pesticide use, and increase crop yields. They need to hurry up. Phosphates are essential in the growing of food, and the world needs to produce 70 percent more food by 2050, according to the U.N.

One promising area is Big Data. “[Big] data is a tool for driving the next wave of productivity gains in agriculture,” Andy Wheeler, general partner at Google Ventures, which is investing in the sector, told the Wall Street Journal. But the question is: can the rate of innovation be increased in time?

Over the past eight weeks, I’ve shared my strategies for accelerating the pace of innovation at over a dozen conferences and private company meetings, from Kuwait to Little Rock, Vancouver to Los Angeles, Jeddah to Washington D.C., Muscat to Monterey. The challenges each group faces vary greatly. But dig deeper into the issues, and you see that everyone is facing multiple Industrial Revolution-sized challenges at once. For some, disruption is upon them. For others, things seem to be at a tipping point. What becomes evident the more groups you study up on is that the way we go about innovation is inadequate to the growing need to produce it. The way we approach our problems is the problem.

We thought leaders and practitioners of innovation often congratulate ourselves on the power of our tools and techniques. We are sure that “innovation” is not a fad like Business Process Reengineering or Six Sigma, but a permanent change in the way modern organizations operate. Out here on the speaking circuit, you can’t help notice that discussion of innovation process and innovation culture is falling on fresh ears. Indeed, my impression about the way innovation is practiced — both individually and collectively – by most organizations has barely progressed since I wrote Driving Growth Through Innovation in 2003, calling for companies to embrace “systematic innovation, from anywhere and everywhere in the organization.”

One way I come to this impression is because we do confidential client surveys, whether industry trade group or corporation, that give us candid insights on actual practices. A frequent question I receive from audiences is, “how do you define innovation?” This tells me that that person is grappling with an unfamiliar subject.

Most business people (not to mention the general public) still equate innovation with basic scientific research or corporate R&D. Most think of it as coming from afar – Silicon Valley, say, but certainly not from inside ourselves first, and from multi-functional teams and organizations that constantly tweak the way the manage ideas. People love it when I tell them, “Innovation is not what you do after you get your work done, it is how you do your work.”

The biggest challenge facing the Innovation Movement is not better tools. It’s getting people to use the tools that have been created: whether lateral thinking, design thinking, or building a more robust back end of innovation. We are living in a time when technology diffuses very rapidly, but better ways of managing, leading and speeding up the pace of innovation diffuse much too slowly. At a time when working managers and CEOs are contending with vast changes in customer requirements, technology and market conditions, the Innovation Movement needs to assess where we really are and what we have achieved. I am singularly unimpressed with the way most business schools approach the teaching of innovation.

William McCullough, the great biographer, has just produced a new masterpiece called simply The Wright Brothers. He appeared on Fareed Zakaria’s program GPS the other day, and was asked what lessons he took away from studying these Dayton, Ohio brothers who gave the world flight.

McCullough’s response got me thinking: “That problems can be solved by people who are determined to use their brains to the utmost, “ said McCullough, “and not let failure or disappointment take the heart out of their efforts. These were men of character. They never said anything negative about their rivals. They had no money, no inside track. They worked hard and they had faith that they could accomplish flight.”

Perhaps, when all is said and done, innovation comes down to force of will, more than anything else.