Ova Aurea by Richard Heighway is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Innovation: Golden Goose or Wild Goose Chase?

Jono Byrne
Feb 2, 2017

Aesop’s fable of the golden goose describes a wondrous gift of nature that rewards its carers with the daily delivery of a golden egg. In the ancient Greek story, the goose meets a grisly end after its owners foolishly slaughter the animal to harvest its ‘hidden store’ of gold.

The ‘wild goose chase’ idiom makes its first written appearance in Shakespearean times (Mercutio uses the phrase in Romeo and Juliet), but our modern sense of it as representing “a tedious uncertain pursuit” is confirmed in early 19th century English text.

Looking back on my own 20-year relationship with ‘innovation’ (from ‘tinkerering’ as an applied human scientist to running an award-winning UK government ‘innovation’ funding agency), I can empathise with both the ‘golden’ and ‘wild’ goose perspectives (and all viewpoints in between).

This blog is the introduction to a short series of myfastestmile posts. I’ll explore the potentially hazardous topic of ‘innovation’ and consider:

  1. the reasons why ‘innovation’ is often aggressively promoted by authority figures, despite its all-too-common failure to live up to its hype
  2. the common reasons for those failures
  3. alternative, more productive approaches to ‘innovation’

My aim is to intrigue and provoke in equal measure. I hope you’ll join me on a bumpy ride ahead…

What’s the meaning of ‘innovation’?

You’ll have already spotted my persistent habit of adding parentheses around the word ‘innovation’. This aims to remind that there is no authentic common consensus on what ‘innovation’ means, even among its most fervent salespeople.

“I know what you think it means, sonny. To me, it’s just a made-up word. A politician’s word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job…”

Admittedly, I may be taking a (slight) liberty with the true context of this quote from one of Morgan Freeman’s most well-loved acting roles, but I’m arguing the case that it neatly describes what ‘innovation’ has often come to represent.

Sadly, even sport is no longer immune to the abuse of this “made-up politician’s word”.

Sebastian Coe’s recent exhortation that “we need innovation” is a typically clichéd response to a sport’s felt need for a solution to declining public interest and apparent moral decay.

Meanwhile, the recent appointment of a new Performance Director to the increasingly embattled British Cycling was announced with a rallying cry for “renewed focus on leadership, innovation, high-performance culture and behaviours”, presumably as a hopeful measure to halt that organisation’s very public fall from grace.

What’s technology got to do with it?

When ‘innovation’ becomes a ‘strategy’, a common assumption is that it must involve the development of some form of ‘technology’.

If ‘technology’ is narrowly defined as the domain of gadgets, devices, and ‘hardware’ then our assumptions about ‘innovation’ become dangerously narrow also.

I argue that ‘technology’ itself isn’t the problem, rather our collective ‘forgetting’ of what it really means. I’ve adopted Emmanuel G. Mesthene’s 1970 definition:

“the organization of knowledge for the achievement of practical purposes”

Mesthene’s definition is elegant, but of course depends on a broader definition of ‘knowledge’ as including both explicit (what can be said, drawn, and written) and tacit (the craft, skill, and experience that can only be ‘known to the knower’).

Innovation…my definition, my definition is this

Luckily, I can call on the influence of my wonderful other (and better) half, whose ‘plain speaking’ tendencies have led to her vocation as a government adviser on ‘plain English’.

After much searching, I’ve finally found a definition of ‘innovation’ that satisfies the most ardent critic of my own (literary) boombastic jazz style!

This definition has an unexpected source — a 73-year old free-thinking American polymath called Peter Gray. The elegance of Gray’s definition of ‘innovation’ surpasses all others, in its description as purely a means of:

“figuring out new ways of doing things and new things to do”

I only hope that my 73-year-old self can be a fraction as entertaining and thought-provoking as Dr Gray, whose writing speaks eloquently of a life well lived.

Stand by for part 2, where I’ll delve further into (what should be) the humble process of ‘figuring out new ways of doing things and new things to do’!