What are you trying to improve?

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Sometimes, innovation can have unintended, negative consequences.

Even if what you aimed to improve was a total success by the criteria you measured.

This is the danger of judging success only by a narrow set of specific criteria, and ignoring other changes which you did not anticipate.

Let me give you an example.

A few months ago, some university students asked me to help them assess their innovation idea for their degree. Their challenge was along the lines of “find ways to use a digital tool to make online meetings more effective” (this was the time when people were just starting to get Zoom fatigue for the first time).

They pitched me their idea, which was to have software automatically assign “roles” to every participant in a meeting, which would change before every meeting. For example, one person would be assigned to be the note taker, another person the devils advocate, another person the creative idea generator and another the “how do we execute this?” thinker.

They could then see if it worked, based on whether people changed their behaviour to fit with the role they were assigned. That would be seen as a success and the innovation would be deemed valuable.

When they asked for my feedback, I then challenged their definition of success.

I asked them:

If you assign only one person to be the creative person in this meeting, will the other participants then behave in a less creative manner? And if someone has been assigned the role of just being the devils advocate, will they undermine any constructive progress which other members suggest? Does that mean that these meetings are indeed more effective than they were before? Or has this new software actually made the meetings less effective than if people could think and speak freely?

The answer was that this would be much harder to measure, so they would probably stick with the easily measurable innovation they had planned.

Innovation always brings change. And change can include both positive and negative aspects.

So always think about whether the innovation is actually improving the initial challenge. Just because you measure one thing improving, does not mean other things are not worse as a result.

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