Preparing Ourselves for Innovation Standards

There has been a continued debate around finding and adopting a set of standards for innovation. I blow a little hot and cold on this - not dependent on the time of day but the very “force” that is pushing the agenda along. Far, far too many who push for standards often have very narrow agendas, where this fits their commercial purpose and you get the feeling that they are not as aligned to the broader innovation communities as they should be.

There are two camps of supporters- the ones that relentlessly drive towards standards and those looking to have a more “open” view looking to ‘simply’ achieve a common language.

Are standards the real drivers of innovation?

There are seemingly endless ways to innovate – is it a little simplistic to standardise innovation and reduce it down to a set of basic common parts? Innovation comes more from evolution, revolution, radical and disruptive forces being applied, will these benefit from having innovation standards or be constrained? Would ‘standards’ be similar to the diploma for an architect for instance, who is taught the theory of the basic principles but who can see well beyond and challenges those existing boundaries and accepted norms, and in so doing pushes design into a new future but still draws down from this their initial ‘qualification?’

Innovation often arrives from the need to rapidly respond to crisis, it sometimes bridges and moves across disciplines and concepts, it might emerge from the intersection of ideas, concepts and cultures (The Medici Effect reference) or it can draw from business, science, art and politics. How do you attempt to standardise, let alone capture for these?

Do standards get simply boiled down to that “de-facto” factor that we all have to have to ‘qualify’ for procurement tendering, being able to attract funding or just being that piece of paper to get past the gate-keeper of the high morals and necessary standards? Do they draw in more, or exclude the best? Do they level the playing field or simply reduce the surface to one where it becomes muddy and no one can effectively play upon? Does it trigger a whole new industry of certifiers encouraged by the state or funded by the EU to establish “standards” at a cost? When they become mandated what really happens?

Clearly standard setting is a dry affair, it becomes caught up in technical issues, it gets bogged down in these ‘vested’ interests yet standards do have a potentially strategic importance to advance innovation beyond its present ad hoc organization.

Today innovation is caught in a silo itself

Today, innovation is locked in silos, it operates to support individuals not the broader community. The label can often be attached “buyer beware”. Today anyone can state they are the authority on either a model, concept, process, etc.

My innovating friend Jeffrey Phillips suggests “there are a lot of people jumping on the (innovation) bandwagon selling the latest snake-oil to profit from a lot of (this) confusion”. He argues “innovation is still part black art” and full of ambiguity. He suggests standards move from “folk wisdom to wild claims to organized documented fact.” Finally Jeffrey suggests “we can no longer guess at whether or not we make profit” and “all good thinking can be codified so we can provide clarity of work”. Do you agree? He believes it is incumbent on innovation practitioners to begin to agree on standard innovation.

The other side of the argument lies in innovation having just a common language

There are a good number of present day innovation guru’s that might need to go back and relearn innovation and where it presently is and possibly heading.

Creating a common language, perhaps an open sourced taxonomy to start with, will unite the many stakeholders. Without a common language emerging perhaps innovation eventually becomes abandoned. The current disagreements, individual interpretations often have egos caught up in the stakes. There are a good number of present day innovation guru’s that might need to go back and relearn innovation and where it presently is and possibly heading.

We do have more unstructured innovation knowledge than structured to resolve many issues surrounding innovation. Often advice glosses over the understanding the individual context and applies those ‘broad brush’ strokes to anyone who cares to listen.

It is also true that innovation practitioners often chose to ignore or not enquire deeply enough about the circumstances or reasons why innovation is needed, they simply apply their standard solutions and often clients are caught up in the hurry to move on.

We are often also caught up in a certain “fixation”, in certain dogmas, mindsets and biases that have negative consequences. The expert plays on the very ambiguity suggested earlier because often the knowledge is so unstructured. Unstructured knowledge leads to unstructured interactions that then leads to less than ideal end results, more disappointment than enlightenment. Innovation, I contend, is still unstructured knowledge waiting to be reorganized to the ‘greater benefit’.

So we should ‘rush’ to seeking out a common language? A common language for innovation promises greater depth in meaningful collaborations.

Renee Hopkins stated recently she remains convinced that one of the biggest impediments to innovation and collaboration is this lack of common language to describe what we are doing. She suggests it will remain “slippery and mysterious concepts as long as we don’t use the same terms the same way”.  She doubts though that “we will all simply use language in a consistent way observing common definitions, since that would be contrary to the messy evolution that is language”.

So are we doomed to wallow in the here and now of individual interpretations of innovation meaning and not feel we need to break out of this pit of frustrations, inefficiency and misunderstandings associated today with innovation?

Be optimistic and embrace both camps in parallel

We have a choice, we stay still and innovation simply dies out as a real force and morphs into a variety of different butterflies to light up our world going forward or it becomes the homing beacon for wealth and creation as suggested it can be. To achieve this it does need to be ‘nailed down’ to find solid ground that all can feel is sturdy and unshakeable to begin to build stronger structures upon.

Innovation ‘speaks’ of future survival but it needs a more robust framework that does deliver on that promise of being sustainable, repeatable, having long-term structures that drive understanding of where to go to begin to discover competitiveness and success. We do need to obtain some level of systematic management in all aspects to foster lasting innovation capabilities. This should be a combined language / action framework.

The emerging route that has been quietly traveled

In the EU, since 2008 there has been a constant level of activity around developing a consensus towards standards for innovation. Standards need to be consensus built, bottom-up structure. It needs to bring together all interested parties and they are often highly diverse. Yet a standard really is only a technical document designed to be used as a rule, a guideline or a set of common definitions. It attempts to offer repeatable ways of doing something.

Within the EU there has been a technical committee working away under its reference of CEN / TC 389 for Innovation Management. They are developing standards under Innovation Management that covers in separate documents: creativity management, innovation management assessments, innovation thinking, intellectual property management, strategic intelligence management and finally collaborative management. All of these are scheduled for very early in 2014.

There is one under drafting, I heard actually finished, waiting for sign off to be released in the next few months that covers Innovation Management- the innovation management system. Its project reference is FprCEN/TS 16555-1.

The EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation Màire Geoghegan-Quinn has promised to give this her full attention in 2013.

Closing thoughts

I am certainly looking forward to the first release of a standard according to the EU. I’m not sure if I’m holding my breath in the greatest anticipation but I would just simply say “let the debate really begin” as there are so many benefits in creating both a common language within and alongside an innovation set of standards – it can then be built upon.

Like the Architect understanding the standard basics, they want to push out and design, challenge the community, demand better materials, better processes and application. We need to do this with innovation management and this is the very time where I feel innovation is desperately in need of this fresh momentum. We can build far, far more from commonality than division.

By Paul Hobcraft

About the author:


Paul HobcraftI simply enjoy researching innovation, applying this to provide novel solutions and advice, coaching and consulting to individuals, teams and organizations through my business, Agility Innovation Specialists. As an advisory business we aim to stimulate and deliver sound innovation practice, researching topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as align innovation specifically to organizations core capabilities.

I write and contribute different views on innovation and its management through my own blog, paul4innovating.com and contribute into the different and leading providers of innovation knowledge.

  • Peter Bond

    I think this move will be disastrous. For decades academics dedicated to knowing and understanding ‘innovation’ have not been able to agree on what innovation is ( mention academics specifically because they spend their lives dedicated to defining. Every new generation of would-be innovation managers tries to tie the meaning down without success—so far. If what is supposedly being managed remains ambiguous, how can it be managed? It is time this issue was resolved, but I don’t think some kind of EU ‘quango” is likely to do it, far from it.

  • Pingback: The Role of Education and Learning for Innovation | Innovation Management

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  • marccanter

    Disastrous, stupid or just a waste of time – at least some bureaucrats and standards writers – get to keep their jobs a little longer and EU tax dollars are being spent.

    The more jobs – the better!

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