Let me admit right up front that I am an innovation junkie. Coming from Silicon Valley, I consider innovation to be the high art of business. Sure, operating an efficient, productive, competitive widget maker is the Holy Grail for many professional managers, and I admire great operating prowess wherever I find it. But what use is it all if it isn’t creating something new? Innovative businesses are an engine for change. And change is exciting because it is ripe with opportunity and possibility.
One more thing before you read on: I am not a big fan of business books that purport to tell you how to succeed. When I am pleasantly surprised by a business book, it is because of the value of the insights that it provokes rather than the advice or examples that it gives.
I tend to think of innovations as breakthrough ideas or game-changing technologies — like the Internet or genetic sequencing. On the other hand, I know there are many hardworking, successful businesspeople who consider new packaging for a breakfast cereal to be innovative. Merriam-Webster OnLine defines innovation as “the introduction of something new; a new idea, method, or device: novelty.” In the thesaurus, the first word that comes up for innovation is change. The combination seems like a good working definition to me: A new idea that effects change. Bigness or smallness is not important. With this definition in mind, I set out to see what the current batch of writers had to teach us about innovation.
Three of the books chosen explore innovation from an analytical perspective; each holds the view that networks are critical to innovation. In How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), Andrew Hargadon sees a series of “small worlds” — seemingly distant, disconnected, and disparate populations or actions — that need to be bridged by technology brokers. Henry Chesbrough, in Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), sees a diffusion of knowledge that needs to be knitted into innovative solutions, both inside and outside companies. In The Slow Pace of Fast Change: Bringing Innovations to Market in a Connected World (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), Bhaskar Chakravorti sees a network of constituencies that must coordinate if they wish to abandon the status quo they currently support and create a new environment where innovation may flourish.
Each writer brings something unique to the discussion. Hargadon emphasizes that the structure and culture of organizations determines their success with innovation. Chesbrough feels that business models are crucial to creating value from innovation, and that they can also help to organize internal research and development. Chakravorti believes that, with the help of game theory, a new market environment of supportive, benefiting parties can be successfully negotiated around disruptive innovations. Each book addresses the elephant of innovation from a different perspective, but all cogently describe the same beast.
Andrew Hargadon hails from Silicon Valley and Stanford. He has relevant experience at IDEO, one of the world’s most impressive product design firms, and Apple Computer, which is likewise distinguished by its innovative products. But Hargadon isn’t enamored with the notion of solitary, ingenious inventors. Instead, the premise of How Breakthroughs Happen is that innovation results from the hard work of talented synthesizers — people who bridge ideas from unrelated small worlds. These small worlds are often the detached domains of seemingly unrelated industries, like health care and running shoes. He calls these synthesizers technology brokers rather than inventors, not to diminish their importance but rather to illustrate how most innovation actually occurs.