Commentary / Japan

Stop talking about innovation and act

by Yoko Ishikura

With the end of the long summer holidays, business conferences, symposiums and seminars are popping up on the schedule one after another. It appears that in this season businesspeople and other individuals renew their effort to learn, so that they can catch up with and proactively respond to the waves of new technology.

Innovation has been a favorite topic of these meetings in recent years. This indicates that the Japanese (both businesses and individuals) have been interested in this topic for some time, and that such interest is not waning. Since innovation is the foundation of competitiveness today for organizations and countries, this continued interest is warranted.

However, I see some issues about the way innovation is addressed and discussed in this country. The Japanese like to talk about “defining” innovation. They also like to hear about specific examples of innovation. I see a problem with both of these approaches.

The definition of “innovation” has been discussed, debated and analyzed almost to death over the past decade or so — and yet it still comes up as one of the key agenda items that eat up time at such conferences, leaving little time for participants to discuss how to make innovation happen.

Innovation has been defined by scholars since Joseph Schumpeter’s days — when he argued that innovation is “new combinations.” Some define it as “technological breakthrough,” others define it as new business models, and yet others define it “anything that is perceived to be ‘new’ in consumers’ eyes” and anything that has not existed before.

I do not deny the value of academic pursuit to define innovation, but what is of interest today is something that changes how we live our life by providing new value. What we are interested in is a new approach that makes our life easier, more convenient, less time consuming and so on — something that impacts our life in a positive way. Then why do we still seek to define innovation?

It appears that many Japanese are stuck with the concept of “innovation” as a product that spreads throughout the world to change the behavior of consumers. A still widely cited example of Japanese innovation that changed the world is Sony’s Walkman. While Japan continues to produce technologically innovative products, including such recent examples as the robots Pepper and Aibo, many seem to feel that they have not quite penetrated the global market as before and thus are not “spectacular innovation” that we can be proud of.

The perception of the absence of innovation coming from Japan is felt even stronger because Japanese as consumers are quite tech-savvy and tend to be early adopters, leaping at new products and services. Many Japanese seem to believe that we are not as innovative (mainly in terms of new products) as before, even though we still have good individual pieces of world-renowned technology. Many seem to be frustrated as discussion about policies to promote innovation drags on and on with few specific results.

Another issue concerning innovation is that there seems to be little understanding that the approach to innovation has changed. As many innovations that have created new value are driven by new business models and a total system approach involving software, they cannot be completed before they are brought to market. New business models that deliver new value to customers need to be rolled out for actual consumers as prototypes. There needs to be a repetitive process with experimenting and trial and error.

When we analyze new business models such as Uber and Airbnb, we know that the first versions were not perfect. As in any software development, it is impossible to code the whole thing to perfection. Software always comes with bugs that need to be identified and eliminated. As technology is constantly evolving, we try to code a part, run it to see whether it works or not, and repeat the process. Bringing it to market, getting feedback from customers and upgrading it to a satisfactory level is the name of the game in innovation involving technology. In other words, there is no “playbook” to follow.

There is also misunderstanding about examples of innovation. When I describe the changing need for innovation, as technology proceeds at faster speeds, I am asked for specific examples. I am often at a loss for words when asked this question, because innovation is something “new” and does not exist today.

The audience seems to want some example of innovative companies and products before they embark on their own efforts to innovate. It appears that they want a playbook and guideline to follow so that they can produce innovation.

Since innovation is by definition something new, discussing past examples will not necessarily stimulate their thinking to innovate. There is simply no real-time example of innovation, because innovation is something new and yet nonexistent today. By asking for examples, they seem to want to feel that they are not alone — that they are following the herd. If they want a playbook to refer to, they need to repeat the process of trial and error and prototypes so they can develop their own playbook.

We need to understand that you cannot jump from “definition” to “specific examples” like magic. We need to disrupt/break our mode of thinking, go beyond the same questions and go deeper. We need to depart from an “outdated model of innovation” and not seek a “ready-made playbook/manual” of innovation based on specific examples.

What is behind this pursuit of “definition,” “playbook” and “specific examples” of innovation? I suspect that it is reluctance to take action and probably a fear of mistake and failure. Discussing definitions and searching for examples of innovation take up time. While doing so, they need not act and thus face the risk of mistakes and failure. It is understandable that people are afraid of mistake and failure. And yet, the world we live in today is full of uncertainties and there cannot be any guarantee that we won’t make mistakes.

As it is often said, “If you do not want to fail, do nothing.” Discussing the definition of innovation where actions are required — and searching for examples and a playbook to follow when they are not warranted — is almost identical to “doing nothing.”

We live in the age of experimentation, prototypes and trial and error. With technology advancing without clear picture along the way and much less at the end of the tunnel, the only way to make progress is try it and see how it comes out.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.