Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Enabling Social Innovation

This year's Oxford Skoll Forum will focus on enabling social innovation. It's an interesting problem: we aren't very good at recognising and supporting innovation (at least not in its early stages).

I've been scanning recent best sellers on business innovation, and have found them to be, for the most part, filled with innovation clichés. I'll not list the clichés here, but in the main the advice seems to be: create an environment that encourages "out of the box thinking". (I've come to hate that phrase. Almost everyone I've been introduced to this past week has been described as an "out of the box thinker.")

I'm not convinced that there is a dearth of innovation, but my hunch is that there is a dearth of investors, managers, bureaucrats, politicians and academics who are good at spotting it. Joel Podolny, a very innovative thinker (now dean of the Yale B'School) told me that when Jeff Skoll first showed him the eBay idea (at Stanford), he told Jeff the concept probably wouldn't work.

The Beatles (an innovative musical group some years back:-) were turned down by a number of labels, before EMI/Capitol signed them. In fact, EMI/Capitol had rejected them, but Sir George Martin happened (accidentally) to hear their audition tape, and rushed out to catch Brian Epstein before he left the EMI office.

I am reminded of Gray's lines:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

The creative component that most are now focused on is certainly important, but if we want to stimulate innovation, I think we need to pay some attention to developing an ear or eye for it - a George Martin ear. Our world is rich in innovation, but short on recognition of it. Mark Twain advises us not to worry about having our ideas stolen. He claims that when an innovative idea has merit, most right thinking people will reject it.

The main impediment, I believe, is that our observations are theory laden. We are incapable of unmediated observation. Theory is our vision. We see what we believe. Quid quid recipitur, ad modum recipientis reciptur.

There are, I think, ways around the problem. Sir Karl Popper, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound point to possible solutions, but I'll save that discussion for another day.

If procrastination doesn't catch me, I plan to blog on this topic over the next month, and I hope that many of you will find the time to share your thoughts on the topic.

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