The Innovation Paradox

7. boredWhy are most innovation conferences so boring and un-innovative? I recently asked this question on LinkedIn and received more ‘likes’ and supportive responses than I was expecting so appear to have struck a chord with others who feel the same way.

I chose to stop going to innovation conferences about 3 years ago, primarily because the overlong presentation based formats are usually so stifling and inefficient for both info exchange and networking. These days I find I learn far more about innovation, and have much better networking by a) doing innovation b) random 121 meetings and c) social media.

The practical experience of ‘doing innovation’ is always the best teacher but when it comes to learning from others, I love the randomness of 121 meetings and find I always learn something and so almost never turn down requests to meet for a coffee. And social media, is basically how I filter the world these days and has the added value that you can build a direct relationship with the people who edit and curate content that you find interesting. The only exception I make to this no-innovation-conference rule these days is if we have specifically been asked/booked to speak or run a session. This is because it’s frankly much more efficient to network if you’ve stood on a podium and hopefully interested a number of people in the room in what you’ve had to say.

Anyway, so if we wanted to innovate the innovation conference, how might we go about it? Here are five starters for discussion:

  1. Do less notice more – Almost all events try to pack too much in. Almost all innovation conferences would benefit from more varied content, and certainly fewer presentations.
  2. Get out of the way – Almost all events are over engineered and the hosts and facilitators are either too noticeable or not noticeable enough. I like a bit of structure to keep things flowing and to enable people to plan their day, but keep it discrete.
  3. Curate carefully – It’s all about the people. It really is. So whether it’s speakers or attendees, it’s worth paying extra special attention to who is in the room, and make sure there is plenty of diverse opinions represented.
  4. Start at the end – Be clear about what the event is for and where you want to get to. Don’t be shy from setting a big audacious goal to set the scene and aim towards. This helps focus the mind and pulls the conversations in an interesting direction.
  5. Make it a live fire exercise – Innovation is best experienced first hand. And so innovation events should be about solving real problems – be they little puzzles or global challenges, and everything inbetween.

But all of this debate begs the question should we have innovation conferences at all? And more to the point do we need innovation as a concept at all? Can’t we just all learn by doing and social media, as I have been doing for the past 3 years. And building on that point, one of the most intriguing comments on my original LinkedIn question came from Colin Beveridge who stated that “Innovation should always be embedded and not set apart.”

“Innovation should always be embedded not set apart.” Colin Beveridge

I was rather struck by this statement which highlighted the wonderfully paradoxical nature of innovation (and open innovation in particular). There is some debate (see here) right now whether the word ‘open’ is becoming redundant in the world of ‘open innovation’. And whilst elements of openness are becoming common place, there is still think there is a long way to go. In fact if anything we think its the word ‘innovation’ which is becoming more redundant.

As Colin highlights, innovation should be for everyone and everyday not a separate thing worthy of it’s own conferences, and strategies and departments. So perhaps it’s time to get rid of them or else apply the rules above more broadly.

However, organisational inertia is a very powerful force, and our need for ideas with impact is limitless, and so for the time being at least, I still fall on the other side of the argument to Colin, namely that we still need innovation as a concept, if nothing else to highlight what most organisations are sorely missing. But at the same time Colin is absolutely right that we all ought to be working towards embedding innovation instead. As ever, I’d really welcome any comments or builds.

Thanks, Roland


  1. thanks for the citation, happy to contribute to the debate 🙂 The natural corollary of my view (innovation should always be embedded, not set apart) is that an organisation does not need a Chief Innovation Officer. Therefore current CIOs should focus on being the Chief Integration Officer instead, a far better ambition and most necessary.

  2. Another nail in the coffin for the ‘C-suite’?!

    Maybe there are two extremes to these innovation days:

    1. Keep them without much structure and see what emerges.

    2. Make the brief quite specific – strangely, creativity likes constraints. On this one, perhaps choose a challenge or two that would suit a 100% Open client or prospect, and then take them the winning idea(s).

  3. Thanks again Colin for the insight. And I’m nodding vigorously with your comment about integration. Larger organisations tend not to do innovation at all, but rather manage it, often rather poorly. So the smart companies we work with see innovation as a toolkit and facilitator of a process, that helps knit the organisation together (both inside and out).

    Thanks Kevin. Quite possibly another nail 🙂 And I like your two extremes which map on rather nicely to our two models of open innovation as it happens:


  4. Hi Roland,

    I’m so with you on this – and especially point number 3. Why is it that conferences addressing innovation, future trends, technology etc are apparently still happy to market their events with panels consisting entirely of all white, male middle-aged speakers?

    If nothing else, it makes the speakers themselves look as if they’re in cahoots with the whole thing, which I’m sure most of them – being innovative, forward-thinking types – are not.

  5. Thanks Jemima. Yes agreed. It’s embarrassing. And as a white, (almost) middle aged male who occassionally participates in these things myself I can reassure you that I am definitely not in cahoots 😉 There are so many interesting women speakers, and lots evidence that diversity of opinions drives innovation and that women are more natural collaborators, it’s just plain lazy and daft not to try a bit harder

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