We need some innovation action, stat

Our lack of innovation is prompting Vincent Heeringa to face-palm

​Our lack of innovation is prompting Vincent Heeringa to face-palm.

Some month ago I discovered the Auckland Innovation website, created by ATEED, and my heart sank. I try not to let my heart get in the way of the thinky stuff. Goodness knows the trouble it’s caused me. The site seems to have gone now so perhaps this story has become irrelevant (it was published some months ago!)

We do need some innovation action in Auckland. We rank low on innovative cities indexes – Seoul, Hong Kong and Tokyo are the three most innovative cities, while Auckland comes in 91st. The number of intellectual property patents registered rose by 7.5 per cent between 2004 and 2011, but only 2.2 per cent over the last three years. And foreign investment in R&D and inflow of foreign direct investment as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) are also recognisable weaknesses for New Zealand according to the Global Innovation Index.

So why the long face? Well, three reasons.

The facts reveal a business community that’s disengaged from the task of innovation. Notwithstanding little pockets of inspiration (actually we can fill whole magazines with them!) the overall story seems to be that ‘business as usual’ is sufficient for us. How can that be after 20 years of the internet, five years of GFC and a free-trade agreement with China? C’mon people!

But it gets worse. Submissions to the aforesaid ATEED innovation site closed on March 28. I was probably the last one to visit the site that night, creating a total of just four people to make a comment, and one of nine businesses to add a flag to the interactive map. The ATEED effort, on the surface, appeared to be yet another well-meaning talkfest that will lead to yet more bureaucratic chin-stroking about the importance of important things. Please tell me I’m wrong. (You know I’m not).

Third, and this is critical. The focus on innovation by itself is wrong, wrong, wrong. Talking about innovation is the same as talking about sex: the people talking about it ain’t the ones doing it. Innovation is a result of good business, with profitability at its heart. That’s what our job should be: creating productive, relevant, profitable business.

Back to sex for a moment, the most successful shagging (according to a long- standing US study) is to be found inside relationships of love and trust. That is, hot, crazy, repeatable hay-rolls are a result of a happy relationship, not of a hay-roll-strategy. Hot crazy innovation is an outcome of good business, not of an innovation strategy. Recently I’ve noticed the appointment of innovation directors, as if innovation is some kind of department. It’s not and these titles won’t last.

Innovation happens when the following happens: Firstly, you’re close to customers and understand their strategic objectives. Secondly, you’re researching megatrends and tracking disruptive change. And thirdly, you’re taking risks by backing new things.

I’m worried that innovation has become a fancy word that masks us from the real task of business and helps make bureaucrats feel good but in the end achieve nothing. I love innovative companies – we run the Innovator Awards – but that’s an outcome not an input.