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Innovation’s Trajectory

Larry Schmitt

Innovation Partner

One needn’t look very far to see predictions for all sorts of fabulous innovations that will change our lives soon. The pace of technology creation is accelerating and the transformation of entire industries is happening right before our eyes. No one denies that the world in 10 to 15 years will look very different than the one we are now in.

But what is driving these transformations? Most people would say technology. But as fast as technology is changing, so are patterns of behavior that drive demand. In the preface to this series on the future of innovation, the twin forces of design (possibilities driven by science and technology) and demand (wants driven by individual and collective needs and desires) provided the evolutionary forces that shape the artifacts we humans create. The fact is that creating new technology, and advancing the science that underlies it, is a human endeavor. So is the adoption of new outcomes and experiences and the changes in behavior that result.

The question to ask is what motivates people to create the science, transform it into technology, design it into artifacts and adopt and experience these new creations? In other words, what is the dynamic behind innovative actions and how is this dynamic going to change in the future?

In this series of articles we look at precisely this question, how is innovation itself going to change over the next decade or so. These articles will focus on how we, as individuals, communities and organizations, will change the ways we come up with the new things that will change our lives. What is clear even now is that the ways we innovate will change – and dramatically. As we create new artifacts that change our experience at work, play, leisure and learning, we are also altering the way we come up with new ideas and how we pursue these ideas to turn them into reality.

Innovation’s Trajectory

The concept of innovation has been around since the 16th century when the word ‘innovate’ was first coined from the Latin in-‘into’ + novare ‘make new’ (from novus ‘new’). Schumpeter discussed innovation in his early 20th century studies of creative disruption. In 1985, Drucker addressed innovation in his influential book ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship’. But the actual study and implementation of innovation as a structured practice can trace its roots back to the early 1990’s with Geoffrey Moore’s 1991 book ‘Crossing the Chasm[i]’ and Clayton Christensen’s seminal ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma[ii]’ in 1997. Since 2000, the pace of writing, consulting and creation of innovation practices has increased at an exponential rate.

The growth and maturity of innovation as a practice can be compared to an analogous practice that saw early theory and experiment turn into universal adoption. That analogous practice is the Quality movement. The quality movement today is manifested in standard practices such a 6-sigma, lean manufacturing and kaizen that are an absolute requirement for any company making goods and services. If an organization does not have a quality system, it will not survive. At its beginnings, however, the quality movement looked very much like the innovation movement looks today. Starting with Taylor[iii] and his time and motion studies in the early 1900s the study and practice of quality continued with Demming[iv] and Juran[v] starting in Japan in the post WW2 era and moving to the US in the 1970’s and 80’s and culminating with the near universal adoption of 6-Sigma practices[vi] first adopted by Motorola and others in the 80’s and 90’s. Figure 1 shows an approximation of the emergence and growth of both the quality movement and the innovation movement.

Quality - Innovation Compare

Figure 1 – The Emergence and Growth of the Quality and the Innovation Movements

Today, no executive would ever suggest that a company’s quality or NPD processes and systems be dismantled or cut back no matter what the financial circumstance of the company. Yet this is what happens routinely with front-end innovation processes and systems. [callout]Today, no executive would ever suggest that a company’s quality or NPD processes and systems be dismantled or cut back no matter what the financial circumstance of the company. Yet this is what happens routinely with front-end innovation processes and systems. [/callout]A business cycle creates financial pressure, the innovation front-end gets cut. A new CEO with an operational or financial background gets appointed, the innovation front-end gets cut. Research has shown that the average lifespan of a corporate innovation group is 4-5 years[vii]. This does not happen to corporate quality or NPD systems.

Innovation practice, like everything else today, is moving at a faster pace than the quality movement did in the 20th century. Even so, it is virtually certain that we are still in the early, exponentially changing stages of innovation practice. The pace of change in the introduction of new processes, methods and tools for innovation, is accelerating. From the introduction of Open Innovation to Business Model innovation to Test and Learn methods and tools, new ways of doing innovation are being developed and introduced at a very rapid pace. The implication of this is that it is fruitless to try and instill innovation best practices since this year’s best practice will be next year’s standard practice and the following year’s obsolete practice. Instead one should strive to create innovation next practices, building on what has been done before but extending and enhancing the processes, methods and tools we use to innovate.  This is called innovating innovation. As the creators and purveyors of the practice of innovation, we are in our maximal growth phase and it is interesting to look into the near future and see what might transpire.

Innovating Innovation

When people think about innovation, they implicitly think about the future. But what people naturally tend to think about are the innovations of the future, not how innovation will be done in the future. If the world is rapidly transforming in virtually every domain, why would it not transform in the ways innovation is done? Of course it would. What would this involve?

  • How we discover – the ways in which we (or our machines) learn new information, see patterns, uncover important signals of change and separate them from the noise
  • How we predict – the ways we model the world and see how futures can unfold. Our ability to understand complex systems.
  • How we create –  the ways we do science, create technologies, craft designs and develop business models
  • How we organize – the ways we structure and operate the collective entities that bring our artifacts into existence and make them available to the world
  • How we adopt – the ways we pay attention to, acquire and start using new artifacts
  • How we adapt – the ways we change our behaviors due to our experiences with the artifacts we create

Thinking about the future of innovation must focus on the above questions. The answers are not about specific offerings or business models, the answers are about how we think, create, design and assess increasingly complex patterns of data and information. The answers are about how we organize ourselves to develop, produce and deliver the artifacts we want and that our artifacts want. For we are entering a world where the things we create are becoming increasingly automated and intelligent and it is not a far stretch to think about what our artifacts themselves want.

Figure 2 illustrates a simple model of the framework we will use to think about the future of innovation.


Figure 2 – A framework for discussing the future of innovation

In this framework, there are three intersecting complex systems:

  1. People – how individuals will act as both creators and adopters
  2. Organizations[viii] – how individuals will organize themselves into collective entities and how these collective entities will evolve their structures and behaviors as distinct from individuals
  3. Artifacts – how the things we create act and interact and evolve over time to influence each other and influence people and organizations

How these systems operate, evolve and interact with each other provides the basis for creating the scenarios that let us gain insight on the future of innovation.

[i]     Moore, Geoffrey; Crossing the Chasm; HarperBusiness; 3rd edition (2014)

[ii]    Christensen, Clayton; The Innovator’s Dilemma; Harvard Business Review Press; Reprint edition (November 19, 2013)

[iii]    Taylor, Frederick Winslow; The Principles of Scientific Management; 1911; New York, NY, US and London, UK: Harper & Brothers.

[iv]    Deming, W. Edwards, 1950 Lecture to Japanese Management

[v]     Juran, Joseph, 1954 Lectures to Japanese Executives, published in Quality Management Journal;  vol. 15, no. 3; 2008

[vi]    Akpose, Wole; A History of 6-sigma; IEEE

[vii]   O’Connor, Gina Grabbing Lightning; Jossey-Bass; 2008

[viii] The definition of the term ‘artifact’ includes an organization ( is a human creation). It better serves the purposes of understanding the future of innovation to treat organizations as a special type of artifact deserving of its own complex system.