by David Rosenbaum

There’s No Business Like Innovation Business

Jan 19, 20073 mins
IT Leadership

I recently asked my estimable colleague, CXO Online Editorial Director Chris Lindquist, when innovation got to be such a hot topic.

And Lindquist, who’s not even a cranky old guy yet (but, I’m proud to say, seems to be well on his way) answered: “When it became something people could make a buck off.”

Well, the innovation business is booming.

So, naturally, everyone wants to be innovative.

For example, when CIO magazine surveyed IT leaders for our recent “State of the CIO” special issue in order to slot them into the four basic archetypes we identified (Operational Expert; Business Leader; Innovation Agent; Turnaround Artist), the number that qualified as Innovation Agents turned out to be a very small percentage of the more than 550 IT leaders who responded. But when people filled out our online self-assessment tool, that number jumped to almost 50 percent.

Nearly half of you guys are innovation agents?

Come on, fellas.

Fess up. You cheated and all that proves is that you’re smart enough to game a quiz—like filling out a Playboy self-assessment that “proves” that you’re the world’s greatest lover.

But that’s okay. I can dig it.

Your bosses want you to be innovative (or at least they think they do) and everywhere you look people are writing books about innovation, pulling down speaker fees for talking about innovation and peddling software that promises to help businesses organize the online communities and social networks that (the vendors and gurus agree) are absolutely essential to coming up with and implementing new ideas. (Check out Christopher Koch’s excellent blog on social networking, “Web 2.0: A Community in Denial,” for an analysis of whether these social networks are producing, or have the capability of producing anything of real value.) And after you buy all that software, you’ll need some more to collect, categorize, digest, manage and analyze the torrent of data that will (they assure you) pour out of all those communities.

The community angle is really hot.

Mention online community and then you better duck because the venture capitalists will start throwing big, heavy bags of gold in your general direction.

Me, I’m suspicious.

I go by Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.”

If that’s true (and I believe it is), then 90 percent of all the ideas these online communities come up with will be absolutely useless to you. Actually, worse than useless, because you’re going to have to devote a lot of time and money and resources into discovering just how cruddy they are.

The one upside I can see in all this process growing like mold around the idea of innovation is that it relieves people of the responsibility for coming up with new ideas of their own.

So the real growth area, the real opportunity, is in telling people how to come up with new ideas, not actually coming up with them yourself.

That takes imagination, creativity and leadership—which is hard work and not nearly as profitable.

Of course, that’s just me being cranky. Which is my job.