Study the corporate atmosphere for any amount of time these days, and you will hear endless dialogue about the need for “innovation.” It seems to be the great American corporate battle cry. And for good reason.
As a career pro who works with technical candidates, the cry is especially loud.
Everyone wants to be the next Apple, and they are looking to their techie crowd to make that happen for them.
So, if you are so inclined, you can sit in on countless Twitter chats, participate in numerous LinkedIn groups, and take seminar after seminar on how to become more “innovative.” Some think it rests in having an entrepreneurial spirit (big corps need to act “smaller” and be more…loose), in having better technical skills, in combining technical with business background (more techie MBAs!), in having better people skills (aka engagement), and/or in having better vision (aka a good idea).
While these are all interesting discussions and have some merit to them, I believe they somewhat miss the mark of understanding what truly drives innovation (if they didn’t, then why aren’t we more innovative? I mean, just sit it on a Twitter chat for goodness’ sakes, and Poof! Innovation abounds, right?).
Because I am a word lover, I always like to start at looking not just at the meaning of the word but also at the history behind it.
Innovation as a word is traced back to the 15th century, primarily to the Renaissance (meaning “rebirth”).
And a well-known prime example of that era (and of embodying the newly minted word [but by no means new concept] “innovation”) is Leonardo da Vinci (a true Renaissance man if there ever was one!).
Not surprisingly, then, given its roots in the Renaissance and in da Vinci, the concept is closely aligned with the fields of art, philosophy, and religion. In many ways, scientific thought, and thus technological advancement, grew out of these realms. Imagination, which has always been tied in with art, philosophy, and religion, then put into action the thoughts and ideas spurred on by these fields, which led to scientific observation and to many, many attempts at invention. What resulted, then, from these metaphysical fields was innovation in other areas, like technology, science, and mathematics.
In today’s market, we like to lump everything into a “global” landscape, but then we segment out ourselves and each other by “subjects.” He’s a scientist. She’s a teacher. He’s a CIO. And then we hope and pray that each is an “out of the box” thinker in his or her respective subjects. (And the less we try to make the corporate world, corporate, the more corporate it becomes!)
But the innovative ideas brought forth with the Renaissance came out of inclusive thinking, the idea that you weren’t just a sculptor or teacher or whatever. Education in fundamentals like art, philosophy, religion, language, and mathematics was highly valued. In essence, it was at the core of spurring innovation. Today, we’re more worried about having business skills and leadership skills and big picture thinking as if they can be taught in “leadership” seminars . We want the innovation to burst out of mathematical manipulation or some concrete scientific process, but we don’t understand that productive imagination stems from an understanding of what has come before and of man and nature.
In other words, we need a deep well of knowledge to pull from, all of us, no matter what the primary occupation.
We just need, well, to be educated and in more than just programming languages and engineering calculus (and in leadership development taught by HR).
Nevertheless, corporations are going to have a hard time finding this type of talent. For one thing, the marketplace has spent many years now shunning the high-minded pursuits (I mean how many parents have lamented their son or daughter becoming a “philosophy” major because they knew companies didn’t care about it) and society is so addicted to gadgets and technology.
But something will have to give sooner or later. We are already desperate for leaders and visionaries.
So we can no longer afford to miss the forest for the virtual trees, so to speak.
What made Apple so innovative was a leader who had studied man and nature, who grasped behavior, and who could adapt what was already being developed to a shiny package that is too hard for many to refuse. He was more than just a one-dimensional person who loved technology (observe his time in India in search of spiritual enlightenment), and his education was anything but specific. Commenting on his college background, he said, “If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”
“Good ideas” and “technological innovation” don’t just happen because people are smart or presented with ideal teamwork conditions; there has to be more substance there. And too bad for us, more often than not, there’s isn’t.