"Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible" - Frank Zappa

Technology

A Few Thoughts on Innovation

Lately I’ve been thinking about innovation in many different contexts. It’s a vast topic with many connotations depending on the context in which you perceive or apply innovation. I thought I would divide my thoughts into a few digestible points, which may or may not overlap.

1. Innovation vs. Imitation
A topic which generally seems to come up when talking about innovation is the comparison of true innovation versus imitation. I have shared my views on this before, to some extent, but that was around two years ago.

I often come across people who are against any form of imitation with respects to innovation. They want to see big, new and exciting things. If the innovation is cloned or resembles the innovation of another party, it doesn’t count as innovation. I like to call these people innovation purists.

While I understand and appreciate the views of innovation purists, it has to be said that imitation is a crucial part of innovation.

Firstly, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants (those who become before us). It doesn’t matter what field you are innovating in, we are all using products, tools, ideas, concepts and processes development by someone else either in a combined fashion to produce something new or to improve our capacity for innovation. Often innovation can only occur once another innovation is brought to life / market.

Secondly, innovation can be fickle. What may work in a certain market or environment may not work in another, and it therefore requires further tweaking (read innovation) to make it work. Often an innovation is conceived or works because the inventor(s) formulate the idea based on experience(s) and understanding of the conditions it will operate in (or under). There are many variables at play that contribute to the success of an innovation, sometimes it’s well understood nuances and other times it randomness.

2. Innovation is Random
There are people who preach various “innovation processes” and “innovation models”. I believe that in certain contexts these processes and models have their place. However I prefer to look at innovation as a more unpredictable and random process. The process generally begins with trying to solve a problem and sometimes the answer can be more complex than initially thought, especially when it introduces new or unforeseen complexities.

And so the processes evolves more so through constant iteration. The beauty of this process is that more often than not, we cannot predict which iteration will hit the nail on head. Furthermore, we can’t predict if the process will create new challenges, which could increment the amount of innovation expected from solving the initial problem. Once you take the above into account, it’s clear to see that innovation can be random when you are unsure of how long it will take to solve a problem and the final outcome of the process.

We also believe innovation must come from experts in a particular field. While I do agree with this assertion, as more knowledge of the problem (and field) can lead to better answers and more efficiently too. We cannot discount the probability of innovation coming from a complete amateur in a field who asks the questions differently or frames the problem in a different light. We have seen this happen countless times, innovation could come from anywhere and anyone.

3. Capacity for Innovation
So, I said that innovation could come from anyone. Well, I’m only 99% certain of that point. Often I wonder if everyone does have the capacity to be innovative. Innovation can be a minefield and mixture of many skills, talents and disciplines and sometimes I wonder if there is perhaps a particular kind of person or group of people that just don’t have the capacity to navigate that minefield.

I’m not sure whether these people are just complacent, don’t see problems that need to be solved, lack the skills or talents, or just don’t care about anything. They are content with the status quo. The world works as it should and we needn’t change it. It doesn’t matter what process or model of innovation you introduce, it just won’t happen.

4. Innovation is Culture, Not Strategy
Lately the mandate from every CEO out there is for their company to become more innovative in order to be more competitive. We see companies form special divisions for innovation and employ various processes or models for innovation. They believe their workforce has the capacity for innovation, they believe the process and outcome can be determined beforehand.

I’m still trying figure out how the above works at different levels of scale within organisations. However, I can say that sadly innovation doesn’t work that way. It needs be instilled culturally. People should be given the freedom to be curious and to question things. They should be given opportunity to fail and rewarded for the initiative. An innovative culture makes room for randomness, it opens it’s doors to the unknown and unproven. It knows the process can be messy and more importantly it knows that the greatest risk of innovation is not taking the risk in the first place.

Privacy In The Digital Age

I think we should all start worrying about the future of our right to privacy in the digital age. Essentially everything we do on the web and on our mobile devices is being logged and stored somewhere. We must be careful not to forget about the importance of privacy, secure communication and the ever present threat of what could happen if our data fell into the wrong hands.

My Response to Koos Bekker’s Stance on Innovation in South Africa

Over the weekend I read an article which covered Koos Bekker’s recent talk at the Highway Africa conference, in Cape Town, where he spoke about how internet innovation is failing in Africa and Europe.

Now before I carry on, I’d like to reiterate the definition of innovation I subscribe to, which can be found in a recent post where I share my thoughts on innovation in South Africa. I would also like to mention that I think Koos is probably one of the few high profile executives in South Africa that “get” this space. One just needs to look at the Naspers tech investment portfolio to understand that.

On Tech Innovation in South Africa

I’ve been wanting to share my thoughts around innovation for a while. It is a broad topic and I won’t be able to explore it entirely in this post. However I would like to make some key points on innovation in South Africa, and to some extent, Africa. In some way, consider this post a response to a post on how South Africans refuse to innovate, and love to imitate by Jason Adriaan.

Before I go into detail, I would like to state that I subscribe to the definition of innovation as defined by Douglas Merrill (former CIO of Google) which is:

  1. Incremental Innovation – Small changes to a process or system, for example evolution.
  2. Incremental Innovation with Side Affect(s) – Small changes to a process or system with side affects, for example the opposable thumb.
  3. Transformation Change – An introduction of a new process or system that fundamentally changes the way things work. Alternatively, a change to a process or system that has significant impact. For example Google’s introduction of the auction / pay per click model for online advertising.

The Cost of Government Software

Lately I’ve been thinking about the cost and complexity of software solutions sold to government. I really don’t understand how government gets away with spending billions of Rands on software solutions that aren’t delivered, don’t work or have stupid bugs.

I think the tax payers and corporate sponsors should start seeing some results. South Africa’s service delivery could be improved by 10x (if not more), if the software implemented by government worked. I believe it is possible that software can be developed for all departments (national, provincial and local) that is definitely much more cost effective than what we see flying around now. Therefore saving tax payers money, which can be put to good elsewhere! I firmly believe that we can also have systems implemented in such a way that won’t leave local departments “offline” and unable to operate.