The soft side of innovation

 It’s the Era of Innovation: everybody claims it, loves it, and wants it.  Presumably the competition has reached the point where old tricks like location, advertising, cost structure or branding can no longer ensure the peace of mind and wallet of shareholders.

Technology is the driver of innovation – many people think.  If lavishly nurtured and wholeheartedly adopted it is technology that will guarantee the survival of the fittest and most innovative.  And many embark on expensive and multi-annual expeditions through the realm of technology in search of the Holy Grail of innovation and its embedded treasures of fat profit margins.

What most organizations seem to forget in the flurry of investing in technology is that People bring innovation through technology and not the other way around.  There are thousands and thousands of technological inventions scattered around in patent offices or exhibitions waiting for the human and/or financial resources that would make magic happen: a feasible way to apply the inventions for the better of individuals, organizations or the whole world.

Organizations searching for innovation as competitive advantage need first to search, nurture, reward, and promote the right people in the right positions within the right organizations.  These requirements seem to be tougher to meet than finding the financial means to support the technological advancement.  The reason?

  • It’s not enough to hire the people with potential or recognition for innovations; the organization needs to support and reward daring attempts, successful or not.
  • It is not enough to press for results, the organization needs to acknowledge and pay for possible/probable failures.
  • It is not enough to have remarkable out-of-the-box thinkers and doers; the organization needs to upgrade its management team and style.
  • Leadership drive needs to overcome management restraints.

On top of all these requirements, innovation means change and sometimes controversy and challenge.  And many expect, enjoy and defend the status quo.  Organizations need to work at two different speeds: business-as-usual (with its own demands, pace and results) and the never-before innovations that should rely on, respect and build on the basis, structure, and resilience of daily business.

All in all it seems that the investments and running costs of upgrading the people side may very well surpass the millions and billions spent on technology.  After all it’s about ‘people capital’, right?


“Innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem.”

Steve Jobs