Just because it’s innovative, doesn’t make it good!

One of my hobbyhorses at the moment is how words and adjectives that ought to be simply descriptive acquire notions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and there’s one example that I think is quite dangerous.

Pretty much every pitch I hear from IT vendors nowadays refers to ‘innovation’ and/or the importance of being ‘innovative’. The problem is that these words are almost exclusively used with a positive or imperative connotation attached to them. The implication is that being innovative is always good, and that anything (vendors are selling) that enables or encourages innovation is similarly good.

The temptation of novelty

But tell that to someone presiding over an organisation that’s descended into data chaos because users have been enticed by productivity tools vendors to invent new ways of gathering, manipulating and sharing information. And it really doesn’t help when big incumbents who should know better (looking at you, Microsoft) constantly tempt users to try new features through embedded prompts and new menu options that appear out of the blue, with no IT intervention.

Also, try selling the idea that innovation is always good to a programme manager charged with migrating a big ERP system riddled with custom code. Sure, some customisation may have been necessary to work around limitations or solve integration problems, but a lot of it will be the result of a misguided sense of exceptionalism or a not-invented-here mindset. ‘Innovation’ of this kind has cost organisations dearly over the years, both in terms of high additional maintenance costs and by making it harder to implement change when needed.

Against this background, I fear the proliferation of low-code/no-code platforms will just exacerbate the problems. These are great when used by professional designers, developers or engineers who understand systems, data, security and so on, and in the right hands, they can boost efficiency and accelerate delivery. But some of the stuff you see knocked together by enthusiastic amateurs, even those who are genuinely well-meaning, is pretty scary – and in the long run is likely to be expensive, potentially insecure, and possibly counterproductive.

To be clear, this is not a rant against change. Innovation for the right reasons, done in the right way, is essential for most organisations to remain competitive nowadays. The point is that it makes no sense to invent new ways of doing things when there’s no business advantage, and there may even be a negative impact on organisational harmony, efficiency or effectiveness.

Innovate to differentiate

In business schools, they teach that experimentation and innovation are good in relation to ‘differentiating’ activities. That’s the stuff that genuinely helps you win and keep more customers, such as product development, new business models, and so on. For ‘non-differentiating’ activities where there’s no advantage in coming up with novel ways of doing things, e.g. many aspects of finance and admin, it can simply be a waste of time and resources.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you never make changes in non-differentiating areas, just that such change will often translate to the adoption of the latest industry or profession-related best practices.

The takeaway is that you need a strategy to deal with the deluge of modern tools and features that make it too easy – even for end users – to reinvent the wheel over and over. Ultimately, it’s about finding the right balance between standards and discipline on the one hand, and the freedom to explore and experiment on the other.

From talking to many people about this over the years, a key tactic here is to make sure that IT teams develop and maintain a good relationship with users. Then you can spot when unproductive behaviour is emerging or escalating, and talk it through when innovative zeal gets the better of people.

Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.