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The "Clown" Theory of Innovation.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on May 2, 2007

Mark Dawson posted this insightful comment on innovation. He points out that thinking about it in terms of “one-off” innovation (get me another iPod quick!) doesn’t make your company innovative. But thinking about The Discipline of Innovation—and what that implies in terms of building a culture and organization—does.

Mark also takes me to task for using the term ‘“get” it’ in reference to those managers who understand what innovation is really about and those who don’t. He makes a sophisticated point and I agree with him.

Here’s what Mark has to say:

“Ah yes, the “Clown Theory” of innovation. I prefer to call it the manure theory, toss a bunch of “wacky” people into a room and hope something tasty grows. Your post points to a couple of issues, that people are still looking for that magic bullet to solve problems now, and the other, more problematic phrase, that people don’t “get it”. People still tend to think of innovation as a one-off product, they see the iPod as spawning all these other goods and services. The innovation was in the how’ and the whys of reframing what the model for digital entertainment looks like. The iPod is an extremely important cog in the machine, but it is not the primary innovation. This is why I prefer to think of the Practice of Innovation, rather than just Innovation as a verb.

Companies that are on the cutting edge of the Practice Of Innovation are ones that have learned that a groundbreaking product or service (the innovation) is the happy outcome of a lot of hard work. In my view, this Practice of Innovation can be defined as:
The art and science of unraveling knotty problems in a way that reveals underlying needs then reframes them in a unique and robust way that guides and inspires long-term strategic development.

People are slowly coming around to the fact the we can craft a discipline around innovation, and those that are doing it are combining design, social science and business brains in clever ways. Rather than tossing all the clever company rebels into a project, it is about finding and cultivating people that have a passion for all three areas, and developing rigorous methods to combine them to gain insight for competitive advantage. Somewhat counter intuitively, the broader the area you are working in, the more disciplined your team needs to be.

I also don’t think it is a question of who get it or does not get it. That is actually a phrase that I am trying to encourage people to stop using. In my experience, when someone says that another person doesn’t get it, particularly when talking about innovation in the abstract, it is often a gloss for: a) I really couldn’t explain my position very well, and they kept asking me questions I could not answer clearly, or b) It’s a neat and tidy way of separating the “smart” people from the “dumb” people. Its just too easy, once you say someone doesn’t get it, you let yourself off the hook for being better at articulating the why.

Aside from the time tellers that have the, sometimes well deserved, belief they already have a good handle on the pulse of what’s coming next, there are other reasons why people appear like they sometimes “don’t get it” so to speak. Sometimes it’s because they just don’t care. When someone tries to explain to me their magical experience at Burning Man and why I should go, it’s a bit of a waste. I get it, I simply don’t care and trying to convince me I should care is taking valuable time away from playing Zelda on my Wii. Another reason people appear as if they don’t get innovation is fear. They understand quite clearly that to make whatever it is being suggested means big changes. Big changes are scary and risky, especially if your business serves the latter side of the adoption curve.

Then there is the worst reason: they have been burned in the past. An ill-conceived or executed “innovation project” was approved and failed on their watch. Lots of cash went with little value in return. But I am hopeful that enough organizations out there are making the turn to the “Practice Of Innovation” that the risk/reward ration will come into a better balance.”

Reader Comments

Bob Jacobson

May 2, 2007 8:02 PM

I don't "get" the big deal about innovation or the current controversy. It seems a tempest in a teapot. We were doing innovation exercises with Fortune 50 clients at SRI Consulting back in the 1980s and 1990s. For all the reasons given, sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. It was considered a necessary business activity and expense. A few other consultancies were doing the same. As far as I know, our clients -- many of whom have become enormously successful -- are still practicing the innovation skills we taught them and not caring very much about what all the pundits are saying, one way or the other.


May 3, 2007 4:34 AM


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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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