Most descriptions of innovation end up in overreaching hyperbole: groundbreaking, disruptive, radical. This shouldn’t surprise anyone because innovation is basically a type of positive deviance, a form of useful novelty. What separates a new soft drink that has a hint of cherry flavor from a vaccine that prevents the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease is the magnitude and speed at which it deviates from the norm. Put another way, it’s how much and how fast the innovation makes the way we do things now obsolete.
The trouble is that most people aren’t particularly good at recognizing which innovations will change our world and which ones are simply the latest in a series of enhancements or improvements. For example, your iPhone is a beautifully designed assembly of the latest stock parts made by an integrated federation of East Asian manufacturers. What makes this gadget innovative is the digital ecosystem in which it exists: a family of interrelated electrical devices, an easy to use system of content delivery and an operating system that syncs it all up.
While we swoon about the latest technology toy, some of our biggest innovations are going relatively unnoticed. For example, while it’s widely known that 3D printing is a powerful way of prototyping products, few realize that the next step is to bypass conventional manufacturing altogether. Boeing and General Electric are already producing large-scale parts for highly complex aircraft and turbines. Mass producing one of a kind automobiles can’t be far behind.
Perhaps the most exciting use of this type of additive manufacturing is happening in the field of medicine where they are creating artificial organs from biological materials. It’s very likely that sometime in the not-so-distant future your artificial heart will be a new and improved replica of the one that is now out of warranty. This takes the idea of personalization to a new level.
The point is this: one size never fits all. And it really never did. Variety is indeed the spice of life and the basis of real innovation. But to get real variety we have to give up a few things: most notably, efficiency. You see, efficiency is created by reducing variability and replacing it with replicable standards. McDonald’s has a turnkey formula that functions the same way everywhere. There are no surprises. But the hidden cost of doing more with less is the elimination of deviance, or innovation. Giving up the tried and true is the real cost of getting to the new and improved.
So, the next time you start talking about the need for standards at work or school, ask yourself “What are you willing to give up to get them?” Look to the past to see the future. The most standardized jobs are easily off-shored or replaced by low-level applications. Talk to anyone who was a telephone operator, a travel agent, or worked on an assembly line. The required skills for our innovation economy will require us to purposefully apply our creativity. In your world that is strapped for time and resources, are you willing to deviate from the efficiency of your routine to create something extraordinary?