Sunday, October 30, 2005

Obvious innovation and the Jackson Pollack example

My recent entry on innovation attracted a few comments, some verbally to my face, and some online, were we can all see them. One online poster, ended his comment by saying "innovation is obvious, isn't it?" - I find very interesting idea itself. Certainly there is a tendency to regard a lot of innovation as non-obvious. If for a moment we flip the default and assume innovation is obvious then there is a lot we can learn about innovation.

I would like to introduce something what I call the Jackson Pollack example. We will use Jackson Pollack is an example, although Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly or a number of other modern art artists could fill the bill equally. It goes like this

Have you ever been to a modern Art exhibition, and as you view a piece by Jackson Pollack, a visitor close by, says "that's not art, I could've done that" or perhaps they say: "Looks like something my child date."

They might be right. In these observations there is an important point is: they didn't do it, Jackson Pollack did, it was he who had the idea, it was he who implemented, it was he who showed the idea, it was not the person standing next to you at the exhibition. Sure, the idea may appear obvious in retrospect, but did it appear obvious when Pollack did it?

At the time the Pollack worked art was changing. Still, he went against a lot of conventions produce his drip paintings. Other people may have had the same idea as Pollack, but they didn't implement it, why they didn't implement it we don't know, we can only speculate, but I'm sure that some of them would have been bound by convention, the convention and that says the painting must be easily recognisable, the convention that says it should be a landscape or a portrait or a still life.

We are surrounded by conventions, and sometimes an innovation needs to break the convention. In retrospect, it may be a convention that needed to be broken but that might not be obvious the time. To break convention risks upsetting people, it may even be career limiting, and so there are good reasons why we don't break conventions - reluctance to break convention is itself a restriction on innovation.

Of course, one reason why Pollack was able to do what he did was because he was an artist. He had an artist's training, and he had a track record of producing pictures. Therefore, he was taken seriously by the artistic community and the art dealers. The same might not be true of your neighbour in the Art Gallery, who has no training or background in art.

This scenario plays itself out in business as well, firms may expect to see innovation from the Research and Development Department, but may not be expecting it from other places in the company. When innovation is posed by, say, the checkout operator iIt may not be taken seriously.

The question for business is: can it afford to only take innovation is from where they are expected? By ignoring the proposal from the checkout operator the company may be closing its eyes to proposals worth thousands or millions of Euros.

So, to sum up then: innovation may be obvious, but there are plenty of reasons why we might lose it.

The Jackson Pollack example shows us:

  • Having the idea is important, but so is having the idea first. And so is following through on the idea.
  • What is obvious in retrospect may not have been obvious at the time.
  • We sometimes need to break conventions and this might make us unpopular.
  • Sometimes, we only take innovation seriously, when it comes in, the people we expect to be innovative.

So challenge for the company wishing to be innovative are:

  • How do we help people follow through on their ideas?
  • How do we allow people to break conventions?
  • How do we harness ideas when they come from unexpected sources?