Every enterprise software vendor I know of touts innovation in every message they share with their ecosystem. It has many flavors – open innovation, inclusive innovation and so on. Yet, there are very few products that come out that customers cheer as innovative.
That shows a couple things clearly, in my opinion
1. There is more thought leadership and marketing about innovation, and less actual innovation
2. Innovation does not scale
More Talk, Less Action
This is not a surprise, since generally talk precedes action in software circles ( as proven by hype cycles of SOA, social business, big data etc in last 5 years alone). SOA by now is well accepted, and real projects use it. When it first was talked about and evangelized, very few projects used it. Social business and Big data will most probably follow that same trend.
But unlike with SOA, I see a disturbing trend with newer topics. People who talked up SOA had a good proportion of folks who knew what they were talking about. They could articulate the value proposition, and answer criticism logically and explain the pitfalls. Even then, it took several years for actual projects to use SOA at scale.
That is not true for currently hyped stuff like cloud, big data, social business etc. There is an absolute minority of people who can sound credible when they talk about these topics. That scares me. A lot of evangelists of cloud, for example, have never seen a data center, worked closely with an IT organization , been involved with a CAPEX/OPEX decision in their life at big scale, or negotiated a software contract to know how lock in happens in on-demand and on-premises world. Yet, they have no problems advising CIOs (at least allegedly advising) on what they should do about cloud. And they are the loudest – so I always worry some CIO will inadvertently fall for it and make a bad decision. A lot of reasonable voices on cloud just drown unnoticed because of the loud evangelizing of the people who are unreasonable.
There is a simple reason I worry about this topic. I get paid for actual execution of projects. When unrealistic expectations are set for my clients, my job gets harder because a lot of my time will be spent in convincing people to let go of fantasies and get realistic. That is time that I should have spent in executing the project. I also get criticized by many friends that I have no incentive as a consultant to promote cloud, since it reduces consulting effort. Actually nothing is farther from truth. Cloud needs a lot of change management, integration and migration work . I ( and others like me) will earn a living doing that work instead of on-premises work. So – no , I do not worry for a second about my work disappearing.
Does Innovation Scale ?
I used to think till very recently that innovation scales. I was wrong – it does not scale. I need to live with it. Innovation – and the associated disruption – is not every ones cup of tea. In fact most people cannot live with innovation in their work life. The same people usually love innovation as a consumer of someone else’s work.
To begin with – it is very difficult for two people to agree on definition of innovation. For example, SAP promotes design thinking a lot. It is a simple philosophy, but if you ask 3 people in SAP to explain it to you – you will rarely get any consistency in their responses. That is not a bad thing really. If two smart teams are given a problem to solve – and they both follow design thinking approach – there is practically no possibility that the two teams will come out with same solution. We all have our biases – formed by our life experiences. That decides what questions we ask, and you only get responses for questions you ask. And the solution you design depends on those answers. Ergo – design thinking is not a magic bullet that helps industrialize innovation. It does help provide a structure – and that is pretty much it.
We all know what happens when design happens by committee. And if Jobs and Ive tried to ask customers on how to get requirements for Apple products, how would that have worked for them ? So, essentially true innovation needs special people, who by definition are small in number in any population. And even those people can only come out with so many new ideas. Look at Apple – they have shifted to an incremental improvement model now. May be something truly innovative will come again from them in future, but it is a good point for rest of us to know how mass innovation does not happen.
I am still on the fence on effect of inclusion on innovation. That is what I am planning to think through in the next 36 hours or so that it will take for me to reach India.