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Thought Thursdays
Innovation principles that have stood the test of time

Former vice-president of Google Search, Marissa Meyer – currently CEO of Yahoo – popularised Google’s nine notions of innovation in 2006. These were updated in 2013, and continue to strike a real chord with many practitioners owing to their sound fundamental principles, supported by emergent theory. Although Meyer never claimed that the principles were based on sound research, there is indeed scientific support for them. Three of the principles, in particular, have stood the test of time and have an interesting interrelatedness. 

Creativity loves constraints

The story of Phil Hansen , the debilitated, self-taught artist who became an internet sensation, is a visual reminder of how creativity blossoms when there are constraints. Organisations tend to think that they are different, that there is a special set of rules that only they need to adhere to because of their industry, transactional environment, unique value proposition or highly competitive market. In market positioning, being different certainly drives value, but at the organisational level, there are many values, processes and systems that are shared with others in and beyond their industry. Often many experience similar challenges. Acknowledging that most, if not all, of an organisation’s challenges are not unique is the first step towards opening the mind to deal with these shared constraints.

The proposition that constraints drive creativity gets further support when the Global Innovation Index (GII) and Human Development Indicators (HDI) are correlated (see figure) . As would be expected, countries with large research and development (R&D) investments, like the UK, Denmark and Switzerland, outperform the norm but so do countries like India, South Africa and Ghana that do not invest in R&D nearly to the same extent. In the case of the last three countries, it is their (challenging) environments that lead to creative ideas and ultimately innovation. GII and HDI figure.png

When next you stumble upon a problem in the organisation, market, product, client base, technology deployment or human capital areas of your company, remember that creativity loves constraints. Before getting despondent, rather gather information about the constraint, and refer to the principle described below.

Data are apolitical

In Meyer’s own words, “Don’t politic, use data.” How often are great ideas suppressed or mediocre ideas funded based on the personalities and connectedness of the originator? The challenge in organisations is to loosen the idea from the originator, or at least ask that the potential problem and value be strongly grounded in data. Rather than building a sexy business case full of vague terms directly from the textbooks of business schools, ask what the data are indicating. 

We live in an era of big data with vast, rich, continuous and different sets of data at our fingertips. Not supporting ideas with research to clearly indicate potential value and challenges is no longer acceptable. However, data do not surpass tacit knowledge and astute decision making, they complement it. The MIT Sloan article, Big Data, Analytics and the Path from Insights to Value , provides real credence to the value of data analytics coupled with solid decision making. With new technologies collecting vast sets of data, the words of Meyer ring truer than ever before.

It is important to recognise that big data are not an information technology (IT) responsibility. IT merely provides the tools, while business should provide the skills to assess and interpret. Blaming the IT department for not having access to data is like blaming finance for poor revenue and human resources for employees in your team not performing. Getting access to quality data that support new products, processes, markets or organisational structures is the new normal.

Innovation, not instant perfection 

In a rapidly changing world, the insightful analysis of customer data gathered six months ago may be outdated. Yes, data are apolitical, but one of the defining attributes of big data is that new data arrive every second of every day and lose value quickly. In golf it is called analysis paralysis (such as Ernie Els’s six-putt ordeal from within one metre of the hole at the Master’s earlier this month).  Sometimes days or weeks of analysis will yield the same results as can be gained from minutes or hours of actual utilisation.

By putting ideas into practice, new insights are created and the data cycle continues: new application, new data, new insights. Innovation masters like Goole, Apple, Tesla and Media24 have a history of marginal or failed products. However, they have never blamed the market, the consumer or technology, but have merely learned from their failures and responded by improving or even discarding ideas – based on sound data. 

Real innovators have already had a product in the market that either succeeded or failed at the time when the also-rans are still busy doing financial projections and building business cases for funding. Yes, launching new ideas that are not perfect will cause some pain. It is what is learned from the pain that is important, as is confirmed by research that supports the relationship between many failures and significant success in innovation.

To summarise:
Love your problems, they may lead you to the promised land;
Use data (about your problems as well) whenever you can, and even when you think you can’t; and
Get the new product, process or structure out there, measure its effect and find the problems (to love).

As the word ‘innovation’ becomes a firm favourite in mostly meaningless marketing slogans, let us not forget the fundamental principles so succulently stated by one of the most successful firms of our lifetime, which is increasingly supported by research. 


Martin Butler is a senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School and a faculty member at USB-ED, where he lectures in innovation, project management and all things digital. He also lectures in these disciplines at Asian and European business schools and consults to industry. Martin has a well-documented affinity for local innovations, especially Pinotage. He was instrumental in establishing the USB’s glocal classroom to enable online synchronous learning for students beyond the walls of the Bellville Park campus.

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