Maintainers, not innovators, make the world turn. Overvaluing innovation hurts society…
That is the main idea behind an on Aeon Magazine which argues that we focus too much on innovation and not so much on what really keeps the wheels turning: maintainers.
“Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end?”
When all we write, read and hear about is how technological innovation is failing us, what could you expect a couple of scholars to write about?
Again, their main argument is that by focusing so much on innovation we somehow lose sight of the stuff that already works. Frankly, I believe we do way more maintaining than innovating.
Innovation is the only way to create new value. Unfortunately, it takes time for that value to be delivered. But the expectation we have for how fast that value is delivered to society is unreal; especially when the focus is just on technological innovation.
There are few things to point out here:
Innovation isn’t just technology
Most of what people call innovative is technology, but those of us well versed in the art of innovation know that technology is a tool; not the end all be all.
There’s business model, management, process, product, service, operations and experience innovations. But these mostly go unnoticed and don’t get the same type of attention that technology gets.
When was the last time you heard venture capitalists and incubators put millions of dollars of funding into a management innovator?
When that happens, it would be innovative.
Maintaining the status-quo doesn’t deliver leaps in value
What the authors of the article call maintainers, in the business world we call sustaining; as in incremental improvements. But you can only optimize something so much, and this obsession with optimization leads to irrelevance in the long-term.
It’s very hard to unlearn and untrain people to think and act differently when all they’ve done for decades no longer delivers leaps in value to society.
Innovation is never a single event
As mentioned above, people’s oversized expectations of how technology will impact society clouds our judgment about what innovation is and isn’t. It’s worth remembering that innovation is never a single event; it happens in stages.
The rise of the lean startup has opened the doors to people who might never had seen themselves as potential innovators, but it’s also given rise to a flood “good enough” solutions that are in a state of constant improvement.
Our expectations are so high because of the attention that “innovation” gets as well as the belief that there being are a lot more people out there “innovating” than before that something must be wrong if nothing interesting happens.
And while there might be more people trying to innovate than before, it doesn’t mean they are trying new, surprising and radically useful stuff; mostly it’s incremental improvements to existing stuff.
These people, and their solutions, fit in the “maintainers” archetype.
Large stagnant companies have also gotten into the act of launching “good enough” solutions, with hopes of producing some of that innovation consultants keep preaching about.
Why don’t existing companies, with their scale and resources advantages, launch perfectly finished solutions? Because perfect solutions are a myth. Innovations start in the “good enough” state, and then get iterated until it becomes something that is sustainable; aka maintainable.
There are pros and cons to innovation
The less talked about angle about technology are the dangers of creation. For every new technology we mostly focus on the utopia, but rarely consider the unforeseen negative consequences.
Yes, technology eliminates existing industries and jobs; but it also creates new ones. To evolve and adapt, our challenge is to embrace personal reinvention, but that requires a mindset shift that many are not motivated to adopt.
And forget about hoping your current employer will future proof you; that’s up to you.
We need both innovators and maintainers
Much like organizations have their core business, so does society. The problem is we humans become lazy and believe that what currently works now will keep working the same way until infinity.
That, indeed, is our downfall.
To impede that eventual downfall, we need to focus both on “maintaining” the core and and “finding the next revolution” simultaneously. That is the innovation equation and one most businesses fail to even try to figure out.
Mostly, we focus on the wrong stuff to innovate
I think we obsess over the wrong things and have conditioned ourselves to believe that anything and everything needs to be “innovated”.
As I mention in the audio below, the problem is in how we frame innovation. Instead of arguing that we need less innovation and more maintainers, rather we should talk about what’s worth focusing on: Are all problems worth fixing?
We’ve become obsessed with innovation that it’s become meaningless because we’re focusing on the wrong stuff to innovate. Because let’s be honest, most of the so called innovative stuff out there is not innovative; nor do we really need it.
Anyway, on this episode of the Big Bang Podcast we discuss why innovation matters when it’s focused on the right things; not on wrong stuff.
The Big Bang is a weekly podcast. Tune in every Tuesday for more discussions on what’s possible.
Intro audio is by Arturo Arriaga, outro audio is Candyland by Guy J.