Fury and improvement: What is innovation?

I find innovation fascinating. My wife puts it differently – she says I have a low boredom threshold, but that basically means the same thing. Once things get established, I often get a desire to shake them up again and do something different (my marriage is excluded from this tendency, you will be relieved to hear). I have even, perhaps presumptuously, used the term on my LinkedIn summary.

Our assignment asks us to come up with a personal definition of innovation, which gives a good opportunity to think through what I really mean by the term. We were started off with the Wikipedia definition, quoted at the time as:

‘Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments, and society. Innovation refers to the notion of doing something different (Lat. innovare: “to change”).’

Two things strike me about this definition, and, for me, make it inadequate. Firstly, it is really dull, perhaps inevitably for a definition written by a group, but innovation itself isn’t dull. It incorporates the idea of change and significant change is exciting and uncomfortable. It will arouse passions. It is also a very profound part of what it means to be human. If human beings weren’t an innovative species, we would still all be hunter-gatherers on the savannah.

The second thing that interests me here is the use of the phrase “better or more effective”. This begs countless questions. What does “better” mean here? Cheaper? Faster? We are approaching this in the context of education, where people will disagree profoundly about what “better or more effective” really means. Another issue will be – better for whom, as change will usually create losers as well as winners?

I can illustrate this with a topical example. One of the most profound innovations of the last twenty years or so has been the growth of online retailing. Using Amazon is like having access to a vast bookshop that stocks pretty much everything I could want to read. I can buy it at any time of the day or night and have it next day if I want. If I can’t wait that long, I can have it on my Kindle in seconds. And it’s cheaper too. Ditto for music, films, electronic goods and so on.

But there is a downside. Just to pick news from the last few months, we have seen the collapse of venerable retail chains Comet, Jessops and HMV. Thousands of jobs have been lost or put at risk and shops are standing empty, making town centres more depressing. Online shopping is definitely an innovation. But is it “better or more effective”? The answer has to be that it depends on who you are and how you think about those terms. Or look at the MOOCs, which probably constitute the most high-profile innovation in education at present. Are they “better or more effective” than other forms of education? We will be returning to this debate later on, but at the moment it is safe to say the jury is out on this one.

There is a further problem with defining innovation as being something “better”, which is that some innovations (perhaps most) simply don’t work – remember the UK e-university? That is the nature of trying something new, which is why those dealing with innovation talk so much about learning from failure.

So I want to formulate a definition that doesn’t assume everything new will work, or be for the best. However, I do want to retain the idea that innovation is something profoundly worthwhile, because ultimately it will be the source of all progress. But something else that comes through from my own experience of innovation is how hard it is. As we have seen, innovation creates losers. It can be profoundly unsettling. Many people will resist it, and sometimes powerful people with a strong stake in the status quo will resist it ferociously. The foundation of the Open University itself could be a case study here but we’ll leave that for another time.

This has been well expressed by the consultant, writer and management guru Tom Peters. Being provocative as usual, he expressed it this way:

“I believe that the Mother of [Almost] All Innovation is … FURY.”

Now he has got our attention he goes on to explain. Apologies for the lengthy quotation here but I love this:

“All guardians of the status quo are [the innovator’s] enemies. That includes about 100 percent of her bosses, appointed stalwart custodians of “the way we do things around here.” Why is fury required? Simple: In order to survive the onslaught of these Powerful Guardians of Yesterday, and come out the other end intact, she has to be really pumped up 100.00% of the time, and equipped with very thick skin indeed—that is, really truly pissed off with the way things are.” (Peters, 2010)

He may be (as he sometimes does) overstating things a bit here. There is surely a role for patient, thoughtful persistence as well as fury. However, I do find it helpful in formulating my personal definition. This is an academic context, so I also need to tone down the language a lot. For the moment, I will go with the following:

“Innovation is a change in the way things are done, born out of dissatisfaction with the way things are. It is driven by the innovator(s) in the belief that it will solve a problem or improve a situation. It is likely to be resisted by those who are content with the current situation.”

I don’t at the moment think that innovation in education or e-learning is any exception to this, but maybe the next few weeks will make that clearer.


Peters, T. (2010) The Little BIG Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence, New York, HarperCollins. Excerpts available at http://www.tompeters.com/docs/TLBTSynopsis_31_Innovation.pdf (accessed 12 February 2013)



Filed under H817 Openness and innovation in elearning

2 responses to “Fury and improvement: What is innovation?

  1. Deirdre Robson

    A very illuminating and thought-provoking post, Daniel. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to leave a comment.

  2. Pingback: Workplace learning and innovation: final reflections on a group project | learningshrew

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s