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Offbeat – 16 March 2012

To make sure that the idea really is stillborn, put it on the agenda of a committee and watch them reduce the towering peak of achievement to a thin smear of something that smells foul on the pavement in an attempt to impose orthodoxy on the thinking.


I saw an item about innovation the other day. It seemed very institutional, talking about research and development and stuff like that. I always thought that innovation began with an idea, progressed into a shed in the backyard and ended up with some kind of world-beating product that was ignored by bankers. At least that’s the way it happened, more or less, with Dell, Apple and Nike. Microsoft and Richard Branson who, if legend is to be believed, got a loan against his parents’ house to finance the contract with the Sex Pistols, launching him on the road to wealth, fame and hot air balloons.
About a week later, I had a chat with someone about the value of having your own ideas. Being me, it was a fairly bizarre thing at my own instigation, but it got me to thinking. I now realise that research and development are critical to innovation, just not in the way you might think.
Innovation occupies an economic ecosystem. It is always associated with vast profits, usually about 30 years after the actual innovation has taken place. But there is a cost to it as well. Any idea comes at the expense of having to rejig processes that have been established. For instance, a newer, better method of filing implies that an older system of filing has to be discarded. This involves the expenses of discarding the old investment, reorganising the filing system, retraining and all the downtime that is involved, especially when files get lost in the new filing system.
If innovation were allowed to run rampant, everything would degenerate into chaos, middle management, who have to preserve the system, would suffer from terminal ulcers and humdrum employees would be completely confused, for instance by the difference between a paper clip and a staple.
In order to avoid this, the best approach is to kill innovation at birth.
Research and development is probably the most effective way to do this: research the hell out of the sod and mistrust it completely until something new comes along which replaces the older innovation and that can keep the researchers busy until the next one shows up.
To make sure that the idea really is stillborn, put it on the agenda of a committee and watch them reduce the towering peak of achievement to a thin smear of something that smells foul on the pavement in an attempt to impose orthodoxy on the thinking.
Risk management measures are also important. If not for the rumoured courage of Branson’s parents in betting their house against the earning power of a punk band with a heroin problem, Branson might have gotten sensible and settled down to decent employment. Or he might still have been selling stuff from the boot of a car.
As I said, research and development have a role to play, just not the expected role.
Good ideas and big dreams are not valued as well as they should be, nor are they trusted unless they are backed by a slick office and the social reputability of an Armani ensemble, at which point the risk behaviour which gives rise to innovation is smothered by the need to repay the finance.
The discussion on Facebook began, “If we’re always guided by other people’s thoughts, what’s the point of having our own?”
I think I have an answer.
Our own thoughts and own beliefs won’t profit us if we expect them to. And if we believe that they should profit us, then we need to be prepared to spend a lifetime trying to shove them down people’s throats to a chorus of derisive howls from the people who value conformity and orthodoxy above all else.
If we pick up those ideas and carry them along with us for our personal pleasure, if we can find just a few kindred spirits who enjoy them, and if we are prepared to run with them along the edge of bankruptcy, the rewards will be infinite.
Belief and acceptance will not add to the ideas nor validate them. Only personal enjoyment and vision count. The point of having our own ideas is not to take satisfaction in the ideas of others but to find strength in ourselves.

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