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Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Age of Innovation

by Alan M Webber

The Age of InnovationWhen this period we're in right now passes and whatever comes next arrives, we'll look back fondly on this current time and call it, quite rightly The Age of Innovation. Beset as we are by serious and pressing problems, we run the risk of failing to appreciate one of the most incredible periods of creative output in world history. Take a look around you and make your own list of the remarkable stream of innovation that is going on all around us.

It's been almost a decade since "innovation" became a business buzz word. Frankly I thought it was just the flavor of the month; I suspected we'd see companies trumpet their "innovative spirit" and then move on to something else when the marketing message got old.

Instead, innovation has become a sustained business element. It's not a fad, it's a requirement, a new component in every company's way of doing business. It's become an accepted part of "what we do here," in company's around the world in every industry.


Here's a partial list - feel free to add to it or make your own!
  1. Global competition. The heat is on. If you want to compete, you've simply got to innovate. There are too many new entrants, too many rivals popping up all over the world. Years ago Ted Levitt wrote that "you can de-commoditize anything." Global competition has become the powerful prod to drive constant de-commoditization - which is all about innovation.

  2. The web. The web does, in fact, change everything. It's part of the global economy, but it's also part of economic transparency. No more secrets - everyone can know what everyone else is doing. When that happens, when we shift to a knowledge economy, then innovation is the only way to stay ahead of the game. Innovate or die. Even for slow companies, that's an easy choice.

  3. Technology. Computing power makes it faster, cheaper, and easier to test out new ideas. The mantra of "fail faster to succeed sooner" is all about the speed with which new ideas can be tried and tried again, before being brought to market. Modeling, sampling, revising--all are staples of the innovation economy.

  4. Science. Think of all the innovations that are a direct product of science - from new construction techniques to food, health care, clothing, medicine, furniture, you name it. Materials science, chemistry, biology, earth sciences are only some of the categories where new discoveries are driving new innovations. Science is undergoing its own innovative revolution; new fields are being created at the intersections of what used to be compartmentalized categories. Out of those new fields we're seeing brilliant new insights leading to amazing new innovations.

  5. Business model innovation. The mandate to compete is driving companies to go beyond product and service innovation to meta-innovation - competing on new business models. If you want to challenge your rivals, you don't simply out-produce them, you out-think them with a business model that undercuts their whole way of doing business. Innovation has gone meta.

  6. Education. The spread of learning makes innovation a global phenomenon; at the same time, young, bright, technologically-savvy students are able to test their ideas and creativity without waiting for traditional jobs in traditional companies to give them permission to innovate. Education not only makes people smarter; it makes them eager to use what they've learned to do new things.

  7. Design thinking. We've got new tools and new disciplines that are teaching us how to apply all those right-brain notions. Design gives shape to instinct; technology makes it possible to model design; the need for differentiation in the market provides big rewards for outstanding design. It's a system that works, producing design-driven innovation, differentiated products and services, and competitive rewards.

  8. Natural imperatives. We're waking up to the idea that if we don't make major changes in how we produce, what we produce, and how we consume what we produce, we may not have the luxury to keep doing all this stuff. Sustainability is a powerful driver for innovation; the need for companies to do a better job of greening their operations is more than a temporary marketing ploy. Economics are changing, requirements are changing, and process and product innovations are resulting.

  9. Social innovation. A lot of our social habits, structures, and behaviors are reaching the end of their shelf lives; people all over the world who've been overlooked are demanding new practices that take their needs into account. As we try to balance the needs and rights of a global population, social innovation is becoming the most rapidly evolving field for new ideas, business models, practices, and developments.

Take a look around you.

What are the shapes, forms, and practices that tell you we're living through the Age of Innovation?

What are you doing to be part of it?

One thing's sure: You don't want to miss it - you don't want to fail to appreciate it or fail to participate. Years from now we'll look back and think, for innovators and for innovation, this was the golden age.

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Alan M WebberAlan M. Webber is author of "Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self"; he co-founded Fast Company magazine and previously was the editorial director of the Harvard Business Review.

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