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October 7, 2011 / trajsingh

Innovation starts at home pt. 1

I’ve been lucky to be involved in innovation at various levels, and it’s a fascinating place to be. Like giving birth, it seems sometimes to be a mystical process, the creation of something from nothing. But, also like giving birth, you can apply rules to it that help everything go more smoothly.

Innovation has become a tired cliche, a buzzword. And yet it is still important, and still elusive. Important because, in a global context, any competitive advantage can be eroded over time. Elusive because it doesn’t have a single answer or a recipe for success you can just follow blindly.

The levels I have seen are 1) at the level of individual people 2) within companies – startups but also the companies I’ve worked at, and 3) at government and multilateral organisations.

Most of us think of ideation when we think of innovation – the creation of an idea or concept. But that is relatively easy (see overflowing suggestion boxes everywhere). The harder part is deciding which ideas to back with resources, and how to decide which of those ideas you should back. And all that in the wider context of how do people become more innovative?

The culture of innovation is important here – creating a set of shared values and circumstances that encourage people to take a risk and try something new, especially in the context of possibly looking bad if it fails (as most new ideas do, and will). This applies across all the levels above, as whole countries can be more or less innovative because of their national culture. The stereotypes have a grain of truth in them, but this doesn’t prevent improvement at any level.

It starts at home because people learn their critical habits at a very early age. So it would make sense to focus on the younger generation now, if you want to have innovators later. And given that interfering in home life is a dangerous idea (!), school is where it all starts. And it starts by teaching pupils how to think for themselves, rather than spoon-feeding them the idea. Hardly a radical idea, and yet still largely ignored – education is a lethal cocktail of entrenched interests, low esteem, orphan-child status when it comes to budgets, and league tables – even though countless studies have shown the impact of doing it differently. (An almost convincing study on Montessori school successes is a clue.) The reason it is ignored, of course, is that it is politically difficult to do, and it takes 20+ years to show any results.

Those countries that have mad a concerted effort to change education have seen spectacular results – South Korea and Israel spring to mind, and despite the ‘conformist’ stereotype we have of the Koreans, no-one can deny the successes of Samsung, LG, Hyundai et al., from an initial base of nothing.

More later.

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