Innovation responsibility

Everybody is talking about innovation – but what do they actually mean? And who is responsible for it?

To uncover the facts on the ground, it is best to start with a survey. So let's take to the street, the community, the office, be amongst people. And ask, "What do you really think about innovation?"

What? It is a stupid question because no one is about to say "nothing". You can get pretty smart answers to silly questions; you just have to dig a bit deeper. "Who is responsible for innovation at your organisation?" There are three possible answers: Don't know. Management. The innovation department. They could, they should, they have to do something.

The possible answers demonstrate that we are in dire need of real innovation. It is a question of culture. The transformation from an industrial to an information society has come a long way. A growing proportion of routine activities has become automated. Things that people used to do are now being done by networks, computers and information systems. It has the advantage of ridding us of annoying and monotonous work. The ”disadvantage" is that we then have to show our true colours. Because what is left over requires us to apply ourselves. It is original, distinct work, personal judgement, personal commitment. The great Hannah Arendt defined this this kind of work as the highest level of human labour; she called it exercising judgement. As part of this process, the people who used to take orders and instructions become personally responsible. To solve concrete problems. To consider things. To decide. To be willing to improve something. All of this together leads to innovation.

This is good news. Because it makes the phrase ”people are front and centre" a reality. A human being – that is a person, that is one's inner self, what one is good at and what makes one different in this complex world. The organisation of the knowledge economy can handle this sort of difference. It organises the exercise of judgement. It facilitates the innovative potential of its employees.

That is a massive leap. It transforms a duty that was once reserved to a narrow echelon of managers into a key qualification for every skilled worker. As such, everyone who is intellectually invested and not merely playing along becomes responsible for innovation. And those intellectually invested are also those who take over responsibility, for innovation and for change.

A knowledge organisation is made up of independent people who, as Peter Drucker once put it, ”carry their capital between their ears". And management? It comprises facilitators who create the best framework for these independent thinkers to operate in.

But isn’t that all too naive, idealistic, utopian?

Is it not the case that many people have no desire to think for themselves, shift responsibility and innovation work to their superiors or to specialist departments and would prefer to wait and be told what needs to be done? And given the lack of qualified employees, can one demand that much independence? Do-it-yourself clearly means more work; having someone (in a metaphorical sense) "pick you up" is easier.

One could look at it that way. And reality certainly makes that arguable. But is that really how people are? Let us ask a couple of questions. Maybe some people have bad experiences with independent thinking. Maybe they have learned that one gets further with adaptability and passivity than with one's own thoughts and opinions?

The fact that so many people today are asking about the meaning and purpose of their work is a reassuring sign that change cannot be stopped. Value-based thinking shows us the way forward here. Many people are longing for more latitude and more opportunities to get stuck in – old and young alike, by the way.

Independence leads to personal responsibility. It is the most important resource for change. It is the very thing that makes us capable of innovation, and thus responsible for something better.

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You can get pretty smart answers to silly questions; you just have to dig a bit deeper. Wolf Lotter Business journalist and book author

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