Book Review: Innovation Abyss

Dr. Chris DeArmitt says he’s tired of hearing people constantly talk about improving innovation methods and efforts, only to find that no real innovation is actually taking place. He also suggests that books on innovation are generally written by theorists and academics; people with no hands-on experience and no real value to contribute to the actual practice of innovation. So who can tell us what’s actually going on?

In the preface of his new book, Innovation Abyss, Chris boldly says: “If you want something more than amusing anecdotes and useless theory, then read on to find out what’s really holding innovation back and what you can do to unleash it.”

Chris DeArmitt is an award-winning innovator who started inventing from his home at a young age. He delved into the field of plastics while at university and continued on to work with chemicals, smart materials, and more. He worked many years for large corporations such as BASF and subsequently worked as an independent consultant and innovator for international clients. Throughout his career he has maintained an underlying goal to bridge the gap between the scientists who create products which no one wants or needs and the managers who cannot make good decisions about what to prioritize because they don’t understand the science.

“There are managers who don’t understand the technology they are managing and scientists who understand the technical side but have no business sense.” – Chris DeArmitt

Throughout the book Chris describes many problems faced by innovation practitioners and creatives, which are often ignored by the so-called experts.  Some of his ideas run counter to popular belief at the moment. Let’s take as an example, what Chris describes as the incorrect management of creative people.

There are numerous offers for online innovation training, as well as books and courses to improves one’s creative ability. But creative training, Chris says, is not the answer. He explains that creativity is 80% genetic; either it’s in your blood or it isn’t. Instead companies should focus on hiring Myers Briggs NT personality types and building the right environment where creative people flourish. Then you teach your creative people business skills, which is easier and more effective than trying to teach business people creative skills.

This last argument made sense to me. While I do believe that everyone is creative in some way(s) and creative skills can be improved with intentional practice and training, there are certainly aspects of creative ability that are instinctual and more pronounced in some people, even from a young age. We’ve all seen the Youtube videos of the child prodigies who seem to have brought their abilities over from another lifetime!

“Where do you think the people with “out of the box” ideas are? They are usually to be found outside of the box!” – Chris DeArmitt

Regarding the right environment for creatives, Chris goes into detail about the typical large corporations with working cultures that are too controlled, with too many safety protocols and red tape, and all the wrong rewards systems. And while no one will argue with his criticism, this argument isn’t new. People have been complaining for years that even during all the innovation hype in recent years, corporate culture remains more or less the same; in some cases with the addition of more brainstorming meetings, bean bags and ping pong tables.

Chris also takes issue with popular methodologies such as Stage Gate and Six Sigma—arguing that innovation is the exact opposite of structured, predictable, repeatable processes. Citing many additional examples and research, Chris says that these practices are effective at what they’re intended to do, but that Six Sigma for example is “narrowly designed to fix an existing process” and does not help in “coming up with new products or disruptive technologies.” (Richardson 2007).

“Order is the antithesis of creativity.” – Chris DeArmitt

There are many more problems and challenges described throughout the book. The author even admits, “this is not a feel good book… I have shared the horrifying stories of an insider who has seen the innovation battles fought and usually lost over the last thirty years.” However, his message is not all negative. Chris concludes with small bits of useful advice for innovators and creatives navigating their way through the innovation maze as well as to middle managers and leaders

I thought that Chris’ ideas and opinions were clear and his complaints well-founded. Reading Innovation Abyss felt more like sitting down at the pub to discuss work challenges with a friend as opposed to the more analytical or inspirational content commonly seen today. Innovation Abyss is a quick read, but full of helpful feedback to take into consideration.

By Amelia Johannsen

About the reviewer

Amelia Johannsen is a digital communications professional working on a variety of projects internationally. She is passionate about functional design and collaborative innovation used to create a more compassionate and sustainable world. As a freelance writer, she contributes to projects such as InnovationMangement.se, The Green Exchange and Friki Fish, while her free time is best spent traveling and in the pottery studio. Feel free to connect on Linkedin and Twitter.

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