Innovation / transformation / change

Bruce Nussbaum, the perennially ebullient design fanboy and commentator, recently posted this provocative note on his blog suggesting that “innovation is dead”. So instead “transformation” is the hot new relevant, necessary concept for the new year in light of failing institutions, economic turmoil, etc.

I take issue with a couple aspects of Nussbaum’s post:

a. By saying that “innovation is dead” he basically admits that it was simply a fad concept, and thus inherently meaningless anyway– which it’s not! Design is genuinely an art of innovation at multiple levels.

b. This post alarmingly implies that “transformation” must replace “innovation”, and that the two are non-analogous or somehow exclusive, like a binary choice. Not quite!

In my view, “innovation” and “transformation” are different kinds of “change”, which is fundamentally what design is about–positive, influential change that improve people’s lives at varying degrees. (Clement Mok famously said that design is the “art of causing change in accordance with taste and intent”.) There is a continuum of potential from the tiniest incremental kinds of change (move the button over to the right) towards increasing levels of impact (from the product to the activity to the environment to the organization and culture…the totality of the over-arching system, if you will). It’s not that one concept is no longer relevant, but that newly emergent interpretations of the situation (and the locus of control and opportunity for impact) have shifted, presenting a possibly more enlightened perspective of what is truly needed to make meaningful improvements–like metaphorically detonating an institution and re-writing its charter and policies from scratch, rather than coming up with another “cool product”.

(Quick aside: Wasn’t Apple celebrated for basically innovating its way out of the last economic downturn/dot-com crash, with the iPod, iMac, etc.?? And as for Nussbaum’s critique of the “financial innovations” that brought down the economy–that’s fair point, but those innovations (the sub-prime mortgage schemes, etc.) were not evaluated by a sensible, humane assessment of their ethical value: good, fair, just, sustainable. Instead greed prevailed, devaluing their worth as “innovations”. A true innovation should somehow enable each of those core human values…dating back to Classical rhetoric, etc.)

Transformation is indeed a special kind of change–reserved for the most extraordinary of dilemmas, whereby a dramatic, powerful shift in values, policies, processes, and even the organization’s own “raison d’etre” are necessitated and any lesser alternative is simply insufficient. It is truly an existential change of deep ramifications. It is tantamount to revolution. (In truth, any change can be regarded as a “revolution”, depending on the level of resistance encountered and the intensity of the resistors!).

Sometimes innovation is needed, whereas other times transformation is needed. One does not preclude the other. Sometimes to achieve breakthrough product & service innovation, transformation of the company is needed at a very deep philosophic level. What are the operational assumptions maintained by the company’s “chief guard” (board of directors, etc.) and how do they synchronize with an “innovative” project’s charter and goals? Or are they all in conflict, threatening the innovative abilities the organization professes to embody?

This question lies with the organization’s leaders in making the proper and correct diagnosis that is best for their shareholders and customers as to what’s really needed. Either way, we as designers just need to be aware that neither concept is simply a “fad of the year” espoused by periodic commentators but very serious notions with tremendous consequences all around. Failure to distinguish this can only result in problems for future design attempts.

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