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Innovation is not about Why; It’s about Why not

Updated: Feb 16, 2020

Since childhood, I had been taught to question things, processes, and whatever my mind couldn’t comprehend with trusted logic. I was made to believe that this questioning attitude would eventually nurture my thought process similar to that of an Innovator. Still, after these many years, I am not really an Innovator. I certainly do not believe to be one. Why did this happen? Or where did I fall out of the way? Maybe because, all along, I carried a wrong notion as to what Innovation actually meant.

Innovation is hard. At least, I was made to believe this all through. I am happy to denounce this thought process, finally, after exploring different facets of Innovation, researching on a number of Innovators and most importantly, understanding the difference between Invention and Innovation.

Invention and Innovation are often termed synonymous but are inherently different. Yeah, heard about this so many times. So what actually is the difference? Inventions are new things or processes, never heard of by anyone. Innovations are better versions, better applications, or more feature-filled versions of these inventions. In other words, Invention is raw whereas Innovation is glamourous. Touchscreen technology, invented way back in 1982, was an invention whereas the same invention when applied to an iPhone, in 2007, was an Innovation. Effectively and most certainly, we can say Inventions and Innovations have the same difference as between a Scientist and an Entrepreneur.

We have been hard-wired to think that Innovation is hard even though we didn’t know what Innovation meant. I barely remember any Innovation classes during my schooling and college days, although I remember memorizing dates and events related to the Second World War! The main culprit, in my humble opinion, is the linear educational system that we have been following since the industrial ages. We need to understand that industrial age required division of labor and compliant labor force in order to achieve economies of scale for the inventions developed during those times. Industrial Ages heralded the paradigm of operational efficiency in business operations and made people believe that an organization that achieves operational efficiency, with more incremental developmental practices, doesn’t require to innovate since a competitor startup will require years to build up to such scale. This thinking fails badly in the age of software cloud infrastructure set-ups.

Innovation requires belief as much as it requires inquisitive thought process. If you can’t believe you can, you probably may not be able to Innovate. The biggest challenge with the current educational framework, followed since the Industrial Age, is that it teaches us to be compliant rather than inquisitive. With time, new age developments led to people being more creative in thoughts and people started questioning age-old practices. However, what they questioned is: Why the age-old practice? Fewer of these creative people come up with a new process to replace the existing process and have the audacity to ask the right question àWhy not this?? Challenge lies in believing we can.

Starting with Why connotes an inquisitive mindset whereas Why not connotes an exploratory one. I am personally fascinated with the latter one since it removes all barriers to breakthrough and fundamental changes this could produce since we may not have a narrow purpose and in pursuit of the unknown, we stumble upon some larger than life phenomena. Abraham Flexner in his famous essay, The Usefulness of Useless Things, the greatest human achievements often don’t begin with a purpose, but as a quest for understanding. Further, the reason “Why” doesn’t help innovation is because questioning is free of charge. Curse and run. “Why not” on the other hand requires one to study the matter in enough depth to be able to explore the possible alternatives and then probably say Why not this way?

We require an educational framework that makes Innovation easy to understand, something which we can learn irrespective of where we stand in our careers or education. We need to believe that it is not the scarcity of organizational resources that legitimizes the argument for innovation. In fact, we can use the existing public knowledge to come up with new ways to solve existing problems, design new things and make the world a better place to live.

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