Why we’re obsessed with innovation

By | June 16, 2016

Hardly a day goes by that we’re not lectured by a politician, academic or business leader to be more “innovative”. Canada is apparently falling behind in the world race to innovate and if we don’t do better, we’ll fail, or get fired, or end up in the poorhouse.

In a recent Globe and Mail business article, David Livermore, an American writer (and president of the “Cultural Intelligence Centre” in Lansing, Michigan) wrote the following:

“Your mind is your most powerful asset for innovation. Spend time thinking about innovation and it will help foster creative breakthroughs.”

This is ridiculous. The dictionary defines innovation as a “new idea, device or method” so of course it involves the mind, rather than the heart or the left foot. But how does “thinking about innovation” foster creativity?

I see innovation as applied creativity. Pure creativity applies mostly to the arts – a world where human beings called artists spend a lot of time perfecting their craft, searching for and nurturing new ideas, researching, absorbing, observing, failing, persisting, and sweating over stuff big and small.

Innovation involves new ideas too, but in most cases they have to be useful ideas that lead to products and services of some kind. Innovation has been around since the dawn of mankind, but its recent trendiness is a carryover from the IT world, which has been responsible for the most recent wave of transformative products, starting with the humble PC (thank you, IBM) circa 1981 and continuing with software of every size shape and description, not to mention the laser printer, the Internet and the cell phone.

But as Robert Gordon points out in his recent book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the major innovations of the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries – a very long list that includes the airplane, the automobile, the internal combustion engine, rockets, radio, TV, movies, vaccines, the birth control pill, radar, nuclear power, and jet propulsion – were arguably more transformative and greater catalysts for growth than anything we’ve seen in the last 30 years.

Maybe that’s one reason why contemporary business is obsessed with innovation. We’ve never been more modern but we`re seeing fewer gains in productivity and fewer revolutionary products, so we feel the need to try even harder. That exciting, dynamic shopping mall known as the global economy creates enormous anxiety and stress, and a relentless need to compete.

There`s more. The challenges of climate change and the transition from an oil-based society to one based on clean energy are huge and we know it. Everyone on the planet will be affected. Oil powers our economy, feeds our crops, shapes and defines thousands of products we use every day. I don’t think we’ve even begun to get our minds around the magnitude of change that’s coming in the next 30 years.

But please don’t despair! Let’s come back to creativity. Creativity is not a magic wand but it’s our best bet to cope with the challenges ahead. Business can learn from creative types whose hearts and souls are devoted to finding and expressing new ideas. Creative people prepare to be creative, and then work very hard at being creative.

I wrote that last sentence but it`s mostly a paraphrase from Twyla Tharp’s very excellent book, The Creative Habit, which explains in a brisk 243 pages how the process of creativity actually works for creative people.

Business people should read this book and steal some of the ideas in it. (Twyla Tharp, by the way, is an award-winning US choreographer, best known for her work in the movies Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus.)

Then they can apply their newly improved creative powers to come up enough innovations to silence the politicians, academics and other assorted hangers-on who keep lecturing us about innovation.

End of lecture. Please read Tharp’s book.


The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life, by Twyla Tharp, Simon and Schuster, 2003.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War, by Robert Gordon, Princeton University Press, 2016.

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