Innovation = Controlled Chaos

Recently I heard a speaker on a video on the topic of innovation completely discredit the innovation process as being messy.

He flatly denied that innovation is a chaotic and serendipitous process. He described how if you do it right, innovation can become a well-defined process, and you can turn it on and generate one innovative product after another. Innovation can be systematized, and people should ignore those of us, saying that it can sometimes be a chaotic process.

Well, everyone has an opinion.

In my view, yes, there is a specific type of innovation which can be systematized – specifically incremental innovation – leading to small improvements in a product or a process. There are well-defined processes available which companies can use to capture and act on both employee feedback and customer feedback in a rapid and agile manner.

Software companies typically lead the charge here since they can use agile methodologies to release new product features much more rapidly continually. Using agile and customer-centric design thinking can drastically shorten the time from feature request to market. This allows companies like Facebook to have a motto like “move fast and break things” and still not be hammered every time there is a massive data breach.

But is this innovation, or a well-developed product/customer/feedback cycle?

If companies capture and release features, processes, and functionality requested by their customers, where are they in the conversation? Are they guiding their customers or merely implementing their customer’s desires. Are they swaying this way and that, depending on the moods and desires of their customers? Steve Jobs famously said once that their customers didn’t know what they wanted until some company or CEO told them what they wanted. If that is the case, why do we continue to adhere to the customer-centric approach slavishly?

But I digress. What is innovation?

Is it the creation of disruptive new products, processes, and technologies, overturning the status quo, and delivering brash new levels of happiness to customers? Or is it an idea factory assembly line which takes an idea as input, processes the heck out of it and then presents a homogenized version of it for implementation?

Real innovation needs to include controlled chaos. Without it, you are just playing it safe. There are many ways to create a framework around chaos, to capture and funnel that chaos into review committees and oversight boards. These are all designed to determine which of these grand ideas are going to move forward. Without the chaos, how can you honestly say that you have explored every possible avenue of innovation applied to the challenge ahead? Embracing chaos allows us to outthink the box of our current state, freeing us to go beyond our day-to-day limitations.

Even Marie Kondo “loves mess.” Mess, like risk, is essential to real innovation.