Innovation as a process, not an ideology

15.01.2013 Blog

As a team focused on social innovation research, it’s helpful to be reminded once in a while that innovation is not something we should pursue as an end in itself. Or as one colleague put it recently, we need to be wary of falling into the ‘fetishism of innovation’ that seems so prevalent in some business and non-profit discourse today. An article by Christian Seelos & Johanna Mair in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, ‘Innovation is Not the Holy Grail’, makes this point well.

Some of the key arguments they suggest include:

  • There is a lack of appreciation of the complexity associated with innovation processes. Organisational research over the past 30 years or so makes clear that there are a huge number of political and cognitive factors that can derail an innovation process. (Our review of innovation studies for the TEPSIE project gives a flavour of some of this complexity). Yet this is not reflected in popular innovation discourse, which still focuses on simple recipes. 
  • Innovation is often perceived as a shortcut to development. This means that the value generated from incremental improvements of the core routine activities of social sector organisations is often side-lined. And a focus on social entrepreneurs and innovators can come at a detriment to investments in these more established social sector organisations.
  • There is a false assumption that that all we need for tough social problems is more innovation. On the contrary, ‘many poverty-related and persistent problems may not need innovative solutions but rather require committed long-term engagement that enables steady and less risky progress. In environments of widespread poverty where innovation is not triggered by changes in customer wants, new technological advances or harsh competition, progress and impact may come more from dedication and routine work’.
  • Evaluating the innovation performance of organisations based primarily on positive outcomes can stifle the experimentation (and failure) that is necessary for progress in difficult and unpredictable environments.

Overall, Seelos and Mair recommend that we move from ‘innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process – a transition that might be less glamorous but will be more productive’. The article is well worth reading in full. You can find it on the SSIR website, here.

Image: Alan Stanton on Flickr