February 15, 2021

Busy stoking the boilers of innovation


There’s a famous article in a science periodical from the thirties that profiles the outstanding contributors to human welfare.

My favorite section is when the journalist reveals that most of the world’s greatest inventors don’t even know how many inventions they’ve made.

Edison probably had one of his staff members keeping an inventory of his thousands of creations, but odds are, he couldn’t spit out his final number on a moment’s notice. Nor would he care to.

The inventor was too busy making things to count how many things he made.

This approach to creation is counterintuitive to today’s mindset. Management gurus and entrepreneurs preach that what can’t be measured, can’t be managed. But innovation is a much broader concept than the black and white world of sales or customer service.

The creative process is actually more meaningful than what it produces, so the mantra is different.

Because if it’s never been done before, then that means you can’t quantify it. Which means, what can’t be measured, probably matters.

Ask someone who makes things for a living. Do you think they give a damn about vanity metrics like views, likes, shares and traffic? No way. They’re far too busy giving everything, and that’s why they quantify nothing.

Harvard once surveyed two hundred senior innovation executives and and found that many companies were suffering from measuring too much. There’s a danger that measurement sucks up resources better devoted to cultivating and testing new ideas, researchers said.

Companies may find real comfort with their reports and governance, but it means they can spend all their energy measuring stuff if they’re not careful. In fact, there may be an inverse correlation between the intensity of a company’s obsession with measuring innovation and the breakthroughs it generates.

Now, does this mean we should be measuring nothing? If it were up to me, yes. But being a businessman isn’t really forte. I’m the most right brained, process oriented, noncompetitive, infinite game player you’ll ever meet.

But for those people who are busy stoking the boilers of innovation on a corporate level, it’s worth asking if there’s a proper balance between executing the work and assessing it.

Are you the fastest at something not worth measuring?

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