innovation capability

Tim Cook, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Innovation Capability

How Continuum Provides Clients with an Existential Education

April 28, 2017
by Ken Gordon
cooksartrehero

In a December 2012 profile, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said:

Creativity and innovation are something you can’t flowchart out. Some things you can, and we do, and we’re very disciplined in those areas. But creativity isn’t one of those. A lot of companies have innovation departments, and this is always a sign that something is wrong when you have a VP of innovation or something. You know, put a for-sale sign on the door.

—and then he laughed.

It seems Cook might have guffawed prematurely. A recent blog post from the IBM Institute for Business Value reports: “In what might be viewed as an encouraging sign for research and development investment, executives are telling us that they expect more innovation to come from within their businesses in the near future.” The business leaders IBM spoke with, in a recent study, are “carefully defining their go-to-market strategies while reassessing with whom they go to market” and seek “external partners for sources of innovation rather than their own internal capabilities.”

For Continuum, building an organization’s innovation capability is no laughing matter. This is precisely how today’s firms will compete successfully in tomorrow’s markets. We have helped many companies do so. We’ve seen clients discover the importance of innovation at various points in their lifecycles; those that do, and then make the necessary changes, have benefitted greatly.

Decades of experience have shown us that organizations can be educated in the ways of innovation, and that such training can create profound changes.

Cook’s view is that a company, and the people who work there, is either creative or not. Innovative or not. It is an essentialist view. We have a different perspective—an existential one—that allows for the possibility of organizational learning, growth, and change. When we say “existential,” we think of how philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote: “Existence precedes essence.” The idea that self-willed action—and not one’s history—is definitive, is as true for people as it is for organizations. As our recent work with the Boston Planning & Development Agency demonstrates, we strongly believe that an organization can make profound internal alterations that will truly make a difference on its work.

While many organizations understand that failing to innovate is an existential threat, it’s only the ones that learn to face this fact directly, and do something about it, that will thrive in the always-uncertain future. Decades of experience have shown us that organizations can be educated in the ways of innovation, and that such training can create profound changes.

In large part, the failure of so many organizations to innovate comes from a desperate clinging to an idea of fate. It’s about pessimism. The essentialist attitude of acceptance—“put a for-sale sign on the door”—is kryptonite to the practicing innovator.

We teach organizations to avoid letting fate write their future. We work with them to innovate within a well-defined, time-proven, people-focused process. In contrast to Apple’s Cook, we believe creativity can—must—be disciplined (which isn’t the same thing as “flowcharting it out”). To take intelligent action, you need a plan to ensure that your changes can be realized without losing the integrity of your core idea. It requires skill and persistence, leadership and organizational buy-in, but it can be done.

Our clients learn to project themselves forward into an ideal future state, and then create a path to make it happen. This echoes Sartre’s thinking when he says “man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so.” We help clients harness all the elements of business creativity—ingenuity, empathy, iteration, scaling—to imagine and make real new products, services, and business models. At Continuum, we call this process backcasting, and we’ve done it with companies such as Fisher-Price. Backcasting allows a company to dream about what its future and then gives them the tools to will the dream into existence.

Sartre once said of existentialism that “no doctrine is more optimistic, the destiny of man is placed within himself,” and destiny is a major element in our work with clients. Our clients learn not to fear destiny but to create it with great enthusiasm. They become friends with the future, because they understand that the point of innovation is to meet reality and respond appropriately. They don’t fret excessively about shifting customer demands or economic trends; instead, they go out to engage them, understand them, and respond to them.

Our clients come to understand that their products or services may need to change as the business environment changes, as consumers themselves change, and look to our innovation process as guidance when revising their offerings. We teach that a bad fate is avoidable by intelligence-backed action. They learn to refuse the poison apple of fate, and instead cook up the future which they most desire.

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUvHIKUbQGE

Image by Jorge Alberto/CC/by-sa/2.0

Image by M.I.C. Gadget/CC/by-sa/2.0

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