Innovatively Innovative Innovations

I was asked to speak in a panel at this year’s Adobe Max about innovation at EffectiveUI. I initially thought:

“Of course, why not. We are an incredibly innovative company!”

Then I sat down to construct our point of view on innovation, and I went blank. I stared at my blank keynote template and… nothing. I decided to look for inspiration. I started with the dictionary definition of innovate:

inn•o•vate |ˈinəˌvāt|

verb [ intrans. ]

make changes in something established, esp. by introducing new methods, ideas, or products : the company’s failure to diversify and innovate competitively.
• [ trans. ] introduce (something new, esp. a product) : innovating new products, developing existing ones.

That didn’t help much. Basically innovation is described as doing something unique – thinking about something in a slightly different way. But isn’t “differentiation” the thing all companies are looking for?  Don’t we all say we are innovative? Is this word just way over used? I was not satisfied with that answer, I went out to the inter webs and looked for more inspiration. I quickly focused on Apple, and looked at how they described innovation. Their think different campaign is one of the most moving pieces of work on the subject:

Okay, I was getting somewhere. I felt like innovating. I felt unique, I felt like taking on the world and being different. I felt inspired. But … I still had no idea what I was going to say on my panel. I decided to turn to the team for inspiration. After all, these were the folks that made it happen. Sean Christmann, RJ Owen, Juan Sanchez, Brad Umbaugh, Leonard Souza, Michelle Bagur, Jon Reid, John McRee, Tim Wood, Michael Salamon, and the other hundred crazy smart people at EffectiveUI all should be able to describe something as simple as how we do what we do, how we are innovative.  I walked upstairs and shouted:

“I need to discuss how innovation at EffectiveUI works. I need your thoughts”

I was met with goofy looks and mocking gestures.

Juan Sanchez and RJ Owen

Juan Sanchez and RJ Owen thinking I'm a bit nuts

I was certain, once I realized what I had asked, that I was going to be snickered at behind my back as I walked downstairs. I was now thoroughly stumped. We have won tons of awards and have been recognized by countless experts for our work, 22 awards on innovation alone including being the most innovative company of the year.

So why was it so hard for us to come up with the answer to this? It hit me – innovative is how other people describe you. It is from a 10,000 foot perspective. And innovation itself does not feel innovative when you are doing it. Instead, innovation doesn’t feel like magic. Instead, it is just really hard work. It truly is, as Thomas Edison put it, “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. And, the reason why we don’t feel innovative? Because the team rarely takes the time internally to reflect on the work, and how far we’ve come from the start.

I know “Agile” methods are supposed to fix this, but the world has not entirely embraced Agile practices yet. And so we iterate some, we prototype some, we compromise some, we argue a lot, and somehow in the end we all figure it out. I know that sounds like we have no process – that’s not the case at all. We have fantastic project management (that averages at least one nervous breakdown a quarter). It’s just that the process can, at times, be messy and a bit unpredictable. Good products are not born from good process, they are born from good culture and the right team. And that team has to enjoy some of the chaos and lack of structure. Even the definition of “innovative” itself is vague and unstructured.  I don’t like that answer. I don’t like that “innovation” is not formulaic. But I can’t avoid the truth of it.

If you think about it, innovation is simply the process of trying to discover the undiscovered. The path to great products in technology is never a straight line. It is difficult. It requires empathy, humility, a great team, and a little courage. It is never predictable. In fact, it is predictably unpredictable.

So, I asked myself “Is there a way to innovate on innovation itself?” I’m not sure, but as we continue to try I’m sure it will be a bit messy along the way.

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