Is innovation a race ?

Innovation – a race? If you ask around, you’ll be met with diverse opinions, with support and skepticism, with enthusiasm for and rejection of that idea. We might be tempted to enter into a debate over right and wrong opinions; but I’d rather suggest investigating the extent to which the metaphor of a race could be applicable to innovation. And I’ll try to do that through three lenses: innovation landscape, innovation competition, and innovation fitness. Obviously, that’s a quite broad objective, and it will naturally evolve over a number of posts. Here, I’ll give a rough outline and seed some initial ideas.

Let’s first consider the race track, or in our case: the innovation landscape. What is it like – a level playing field or an inhospitable wilderness, sweeping hills or rugged canyons? What are the forces that shape this landscape? I see this largely as a tension field between demand and supply, but how is the need for innovation articulated, how does that need manifest itself, how is innovation supplied, by whom? And how important is scale – does the individual entrepreneur see and experience a different landscape than, say, a small company? Is the perspective of a multinational enterprise different from that of a national research lab?

Next is the question of innovation competition, and more precisely: competition in innovation. What does that competition look like? Who is competing: individuals, organisations, institutions? Are we racing against them or rather with them? Could it be that innovation is essentially the competition of ideas? Or, yet a different angle, is innovation mainly a race against the clock?

With that deeper understanding of landscape and competition it makes sense to take a look through the third lens: innovation fitness.  What does it take to succeed in an innovation race? Is speed the only thing that matters? How much does the participation in today’s race, even if unsuccessful, prepare for tomorrow’s race? Are there only relative measures of fitness that are related to the landscape and/or the competition? Or could there be absolute measures of innovation fitness that are valid regardless of circumstances?

Of course these three lenses are interdependent and partially overlapping. Yet they provide a solid reference frame for discussion innovation. And I’ll seek to elaborate this framework in more detail in a couple of posts over the coming weeks and probably months. I’ll just proceed step by step, trying to maintain a constant pace. So let’s find out about innovation landscape, competition, and fitness. Once again, surprise should not come as a surprise.

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