The Roots of Efforts to Innovate

"Innovation" is an innovation -- it's a new thing that loads of people think it's important and something we should pay attention to. The Chief Innovation Officer is the most recent addition to the CxO suite.

Someone other than me should write a history of "innovation," fully explaining how we got to where we are with it. I've contributed two or maybe even three cents to the effort. I'd like to go back a century or so and explore some of the fertile soil out of which modern "innovation" grew.

What is Innovation?

Just last year, you could have spent a whole week learning about innovation from the best and brightest:

During that week, here's some of what you would have learned:

See what you missed? Not just regular innovation, but "game-changing" innovation; innovation that "generates new ideas" and "executes new solutions." Hadn't thought of that before: innovation can "execute" solutions, and "new" solutions, at that! This Innovation appears to be an "essential skill" of leaders who have the "desire to transform organizational processes and behaviors." Wow.

This is big. What's the core idea? It appears to be coming up with "new ideas" and acting on them.

The roots of Innovation

People have been doing new stuff for a while now. Make a list of the things that have been invented in the last two hundred years, and when your hand gets sore from writing, let me know. However strong your hand, you're likely to run out of strength long before you run out of things to add to your list.

So why do we need to beat the drum and add yet more to the overhead with CIO's and the rest?

The reason is simple:

  1. People resist change
  2. Organizations resist change
  3. Big organizations resist change in a BIG way.

We've been through this. It's a well-understood idea, thoroughly grounded in human psychology. It's not just that psychologically, people resist change. It's that they are highly incentivized, even rewarded, for resisting change. If that sounds strange, you should check out books like the Innovator's Dilemma.

We can learn a couple important things from organizations that were terrifically innovative at the start:

  1. They were started by unusual, driven people, often education drop-outs, who never took a single course or seminar in innovation, much less business education. See this and this.

  • Once those amazing organizations grew to become leaders in their field, they almost always stop innovating! But they know they need it, so they acquire what they can't create. See this.
  • Large companies figured this out a long time ago.

    Here's an attempt at H.J. Heinz around 1909 to solve the problem:

    Yes, it's a suggestion box.

    Why have a suggestion box? It's anonymous! The person who has the feedback or the great idea can make it without fear of punishment or retribution. That's absurd, perhaps you say! Why would anyone in authority punish someone who makes a suggestion for improvement? Try it sometime. Just make sure that your suggestion goes against the "common wisdom" at your organization.You'll see.

    The impulse to foster what is now called innovation has been around for a long time. It's a bubble phenomenon now, but some form of it has been bubbling along for centuries. "Change," like motherhood, is judged to be a good thing, unless and until it's you who have to change, and the change isn't in your favor. That's why real change mostly comes from upstart people who create upstart organizations.


    The well-intended suggestion box of past centuries was an attempt to solve a deep-seated issue with people and organizations. It has morphed into the modern innovation movement. You can expect results that are every bit as stunning as those well-known new things that came from pieces of paper stuffed into suggestion boxes. If you still insist on change that works, see this.