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I’ve been talking with a diverse group of people in recent months about the subject of innovation and disruption. Here are a few observations…

Firstly, in terms of terminology, there’s a lot of confusion. Innovation is a term that has become a bit Zeitgeist-y, as to an extent has disruption. Let’s not aim for perfect definitions, but instead note that organisations are often looking to do one or both of these two things: doing existing things differently, or doing entirely new things. Innovation can be used interchangeably, disruption tends more to the latter.

Either way, changing is difficult. We crave consistency and predictability, and change of any sort is intellectually and emotionally greater effort than simply doing what we did the day before. Anyone can spot an opportunity to change, but big organisations by their nature are often systemically geared to prevent change in all forms.

That said, there are some common misconceptions about who can be creative and come up with new ideas. Given the right environment, I think anyone can. The trouble is that we have a set mythology about the inventor or creative that focus on flashes of inspiration and the creative muse. But creativity is a process, part of which is determined by putting oneself into the right intellectual environment.

Take, for example, our greatest literary mind William Shakespeare. Old Bill didn’t just stare at a blank sheet of paper… He gave himself creative constraints on which to work. Rhyming structures like the sonnet. If you are trying to come up with something completely new, staring into space is a really bad place to start.

Given the right tools, anyone can be innovative or disruptive. But my final thought is don’t expect the tools of a computer programmer to be the right set. Expecting a developer to be able to innovative is like expecting a milkman to be able to milk a cow. Sure they are in related fields (no pun intended), but they have different skill sets.

The world is made up of puzzles and problems. Puzzles are things to which there are known answers, and solving them is about finding the right one. Problems are things to which there are no defined solutions, but that you will only make progress by interacting with them. Software development is primarily an exercise is defining a puzzle and solving it. Software development methods come unstuck if the puzzle cannot be defined.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that software developers cannot be innovative or disruptive. It’s just not necessarily a core competency and in many ways the science of software starts once an idea has been hatched, not at its conception.

2 thoughts on “Milking cows

  1. “staring into space is a really bad place to start.” love it. It’s also worth noting that the majority of really innovative startups in the field of IT have been founded by, or on the basis of a developer who had an idea and ran with it.

    1. Absolutely. And the power of the outsider pays an important part there too. Innovation and software developers aren’t mutually exclusive, but neither are developers a subset of innovators…

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