HITS Parting Thought: Innovation Fetishization

The HITS 2003 conference was very focused on the idea of innovation. Whenever designers talk about business, they can’t get away from the need to “innovate.” It seems to be what designers think they can best offer business.

Such an obsession with “innovation” worries me. It worries me because I live in a world where the things that already exist typically don’t work as well as they should. More time should be spent bringing existing products and services up to snuff, and not focusing on The Next Big Thing. This innovation fetishization becomes a shiny bauble distracting people from paying attention to the here and now.

I also find that most of us don’t get to work on “innovation.” We’d love to, but it’s not practical. Maybe it’s just me, but the bulk of my work is to get corporations to stop fucking up how they do things, or, at least, to fuck up as little as possible. Conferences like HITS make me nervous because I fear that folks (particularly students, who were very much in attendance) think that life is about innovation, and then will be needlessly disappointed when they enter the real world and find out that the bulk of their time is spent shoring up poorly planned solutions.

Not that I’m against innovation. There’s a place for innovation. I wish my work afforded me more ability to innovate. But we’ve got to be careful to not forsake the now in favor of planning for some distant future.

Oh, and most of the presentations from HITS are up. I’ve gone back to my old posts and updated them with links, where appropraite.

8 thoughts on “HITS Parting Thought: Innovation Fetishization

  1. This is such an important point, I’m really glad you came out and said it. I find that innovation is a relative thing: if you can get that one hold-out web developer to start using CSS, that can be pretty innovative. Getting your boss to consider letting you run an internal project weblog might look almost recklessly innovative in some places.

    It’s also important to remember that not everyone is as interested in innovation–fetishizes it–as designers are. Often, steady focus on incremental improvement, or even correctly maintaining the status quo, is the appropriate, profitable, and even most user-centered design approach.

  2. amen, or perhaps in this day and age alady.

  3. I think you are right on with this point. When people talk about innovation I get a picture of them standing in an empty room in front of an empty whiteboard trying to think up brand new problems to solve. In reality innovation is more about solving the long standing problems all around us.

    I do think though when you say most of us don’t get to innovate you’re perpetuating the misconception of innovation. I think there’s room in almost any task for innovation. Most people just don’t bother to try and most managers don’t expect it.

  4. Looking at the positive spin on the “fucking up” comment… Designers optimize workflows and functionality within the limits of identified constraints.

    And for me optimization is my scaled-down version of innovation. To truly innovate, I would work to change the way the corporation does it’s work. They way in which certain ideas are turned into projects would be a nice start.

    Also, I hope students will still come out of school with stars in their eyes and a drive to change the world. They may get beaten down by “that’s not how things are done here,” but I find it refreshing every time I hear, “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be better if…” coming from a newbie.

    Beacause usually they are right. It would be better if.

  5. Interesting that you should mention it. I’ve got a beef with “innovation” too, but I think it’s a slightly different cut of beef. I think I have problems with the term mostly because it’s thrown around so much in consulting pitches — which will eventually disfigure even the most innocuous of words. “Experience” included. That aside, and to follow up on some of the comments here, I think designers’ fetishization of innovation plays into some more disturbing cultural myths about novelty, progress, and the disposability of material culture.

    How about some “retrovation”? Example of retrovation: All those people now using push lawn mowers on their 10-square-feet of semi-urban lawn rather than buying the biggest, loudest, mas macho, gas-guzzling power mower that Home Depot has to offer to assuage their feelings of inadequacy. That push mower ain’t no innovation as a product. Of course, you could argue that the American Lawn Mower Co. innovated in that industry by marketing its push mowers to simplicity-minded (which is different than “simple-minded”) yuppies. But then, following that logic, what solution is NOT “innovative”? The point being — and I think designers can lose sight of this — the best solution to a problem is not always a new solution. And those poorly planned solutions that you spend the bulk of your time shoring up…they’re probably the result of somebody’s brilliant innovation. Like the power mower.

  6. Nice points, everyone. I do, however, detect a bit of dismay in your post, peter, that I’d like to address. I agree with your fundamental point and caution about the hype surrounding innovation and people’s primary focus on the next big thing. I would add that design education reinforces this and the Institute of Design is no exception even as we embrace everyday life as a source of understanding and inspriation for projects.

    Innovation is really much more everyday — in fact it requires it. Online Webster’s sez, “The act of introducing something new.” John Heskeet would add, “..that is adopted by people into everyday life.” Peter Drucker talks about several sources of innovation, many of which are changes in the environment — very tangible, everyday things.

    If client programs are merely a way to prevent them from hurting themselves or just fixing broken things, then I guess you have a right to be disappointed. But if you are using your expertise to help assess what to do in response to internal and external conditions and changes, and the results are successful, then I would argue, you are innovating.

    To the extent we maintain a notion that an innovative project is an “ideal” project where the goal, the work process, and the results are new to the world, satisfying, live up to our particular professional standards, and are widly successful, we will be disappointed. It is the same in any profession. Results and satisfaction with one’s contribution should build up over time and one’s ability to affect positive change without personal stress goes up as well.

    To add to Jay’s post, Jay Doblin suggested “denovation” — a term to describe making a product simpler and more direct in order to make it better. I definitely use this on most projects today…

  7. Is it poor blogiquette to post twice in a row? Anywho..

    I got out the Essential Drucker to refresh my understanding of what he advocates in innovation. He emphasizes that innovation is not the exaulted right of the few or the result of genius, but of purposeful, systematic, hard work. His “Do’s” include (paraphrased):

    1. Innovation begins with the analysis of opportunities. He cites 7 sources of innovative opportunity and they include the organization’s own UNEXPECTED sucesses and failures, incongruities in customer behavior, changes in demographics, changes in meaning and perception, and new knowledge.

    2. Innovation is both conceptual and perceptual. One must go out to look and listen. This cannot be stressed too often. Successful innovators look at figures and look at people. What does this innovation have to reflect so that people will want to use it, to see it in THEIR opportunity.

    3. An innovation has to be simple. It should only do one thing lest it confuse. Everything new runs into trouble. All effective innovations are breathtakingly simple.

    4. Effective innovations start small. They are not grandiose. They try to do one specific thing. Grandiose ideas, plans aimed at “revolutionizing and industry” are unlikely to work.

    5. But, a successful innovation aims at leadership. It does not aim necessairly at becoming a “big business”; in fact; no one can foretell whether a given innovation will end up as a big business or a modest achievement.

    He adds a few “Dont’s” that seem like corollaries to the “Do’s”:

    1. Don’t try to be clever. Innovations have to be handled by ordinary human beings.

    2. Don’t diversify, splinter, or try to do too many things at once.

    3. Don’t innovate for the future. Innovate for the present!

    Drucker presents a non-hyped and well-grounded approach to innovation that remains compatible with our contemporary situation.

  8. Innovation is also an emotional word, some sort of positioning totem. In the same way that flight attendants try to elevate their social status by saying “I’m going to have you go ahead and raise your seatback for me” I think designers and marketers and ethnographers have latched onto that word to mask some insecurity about the power/impact/import of what we work on.

    We work. We make things. We get stuff done. We do our best to do it right. We persuade, educate, inform, inspire, blah blah blah. Maybe it’s not cool to be proud of that?!