Musings on Innovation

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // March 24, 2016

It’s remarkably easy to use and misuse the term “innovation” in business. In some ways it has become trite and cliché. In others, it evokes a sense of insurmountable dread among those in small business who do not count themselves among the vanguard of Silicon Valley. And for still others, it is simply a talking point among business and community leaders, but carries with it little or no actual impact on their daily lives. So, with those factors in mind, here are a few relevant musings on innovation and its opportunity toward purpose.

Innovation is organic

One of my favorite and most memorable discoveries regarding innovation came a few years ago when I read an article about some emerging economic trends coming out of developing countries.

In countries whose infrastructure had been devastated (or never able to develop) because of war, famine, or lack of domestic employment, an improvised “banking” system sprouted. Breadwinners (often sons) would go abroad to find employment, buy calling cards and share the calling card codes with their families back home. Those family members would then barter for what they needed by allowing other community members to use their phones.

Organically, these folks introduced a new way of transferring “wealth” without the use of traditional banking infrastructure, without the resources of R&D budgets and without foreign aid of any kind.

Introducing new products, services or methods most often happens as a function of necessity rather than as a function of a formula aimed at innovation.

Innovation happens in proximity

Proximity has been a significant contributing factor in each of the major eras of technological advancements in this country, the rise of Silicon Valley being the most recent. But while some notable product innovations originate from large corporations with enormous R&D departments, the majority of our GDP is still in the hands of small to medium-sized businesses that out of necessity are innovating everyday.

This innovation may not have annual product launches capped by rousing keynotes, but for millions of people in all walks of life, their experiences with people, products and processes are continually being improved by those near them.

Proximity to an opportunity, coupled by the desire to see something improved, doesn’t often make headlines, but it does significantly impact businesses, which impact communities, which impact families, which impact individuals.

I think one of the key reasons for proximity’s importance in innovation is that culture is created in relationships and relationships are dependent on proximity. The inverse of the adage “out of sight, out of mind” is “within sight, within mind.”

While this isn’t based on exhaustive data points, I’ve had the benefit of knowing several entrepreneurs who were on the vanguard of the decentralized, remote team movement starting about 15 years ago. Each of them, when asked what they would do differently, said that they would start their teams together in one place, define and establish the company’s cultural DNA in person, and then allow their teams to slowly and intentionally become decentralized when and if that made sense. That’s a remarkable conclusion given what we typically believe to be true about technology-based companies.

It’s tempting to view technology as a panacea for innovation, business culture and work/life balance, as well as society’s general ills and even cultural disparities. The reality, however, is that technology merely amplifies human action or intention. It does not replace the value of relationships or purpose.

Inclusion requires intention

Unfortunately, one of the seldom-discussed downsides of technology-based innovation is that gender, racial and ethnic diversity are so far down the priority list that they fall by the wayside. One of the most compelling and inspiring narratives in today’s increasingly accessible digital world is its egalitarianism.

The Web, social media, apps and YouTube can all generally be accessed by most anyone (except those in totalitarian regimes). But this equal access to the use of the platform does not equate to equal access to the engines of innovation-building or building on those platforms.

Some of the largest corporations on the forefront of innovation do emphasize diversity among their staff. But what’s needed even more is diversity within small- to- medium-sized businesses that are innovating in their own backyard for the common good of their community. There must be an earnest, grass-roots, pro-poor private-sector focus if we are to collectively capitalize on technology’s potential impact among those on the margins.

One of the inspiring bright spots in the Upstate is the ever-growing number of collaborative workspace environments that by their very nature facilitate the organic development of business relationships and the resulting micro-innovation in proximity to others. The newest among those, which deserves noting, is Textile Hall (textilehall.com). Its goal with regard to collaboration, impact, diversity and mission is the next step towards employing the vehicle of business to help humans flourish. And that is precisely the sort of micro-innovation happening on a local level that will raise the overall water level for everyone’s “boat” in our community.