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Years ago, in the early 90s, I remember watching a video of a Tom Peters' sweat and rant business guru session, where he wandered about a floor of anxious senior managers clustered around circular tables (anxious because he might ask them a question that could expose their unfitness to manage their organisations, and senior because only a senior manager could justify the cost of the ticket). His style was to ask rhetorical questions in a quiet voice, answer them himself in a loud, scornful voice, and then cascade his audience with information about successful companies and entrepreneurs scavenged by his army of researchers, that happened to fit his latest theme.

Tom Peters' topic this time was innovation and he said something profound and unexpected, to the effect that the real innovators in the business world were not in the room, this day. That the real innovators are out there, innovating, because they have to do it. They cannot choose to do it, they have to do it. It's in their nature.

The connected topics of innovation and leadership are a bit like pornography, in the sense that those who consume it the most are just not constitutionally equipped to perform the acts described in the literature. But they love reading about the stuff they can't and won't do, which is the point that Peters was making.

Innovators don't take lessons; they may not even read books. They just do it, and do it again, until the timing of their idea coincides with the timing of the market and their customers, and they make some money, or they fail.

The problem with educating for innovation is that it creates the illusion that anyone can do it

Governments around the world are attempting to develop entrepreneurs through their education systems, yet so many successful entrepreneurs have underachieved when it comes to education, and maybe that's the point. As Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales pointed out following a visit to Banagalore, India to visit IT and professional services outsourcing firms (Doran, 2009), "the number one concern they mentioned to me is the problem of graduates who are skilled by school measures but who are unable to think for themselves. A school system which produces high test scores may not be a school system which delivers innovation."

The problem with educating for innovation is that it creates the illusion that anyone can do it, that there is a formula that anyone can consume and succeed. The provision of this innovation education for entrepreneurs creates an illusion of success, a kind of cargo-cult of innovation reinforced by government box-ticking initiatives. What is ironic is this human tendency to construct associations between symbolic behaviour and the provision of goodness in many forms. It's a bit like thinking that the more the government spends the better life will get.

These associations between goodness and symbolic behaviour can be painful but remain hard to challenge without triggering extreme emotions amongst highly-educated but backward people. The cargo-cult of innovation education also reinforces the idea that the highly-educated are innovative, when the reverse is more likely to be true. This explains the war against common-sense. It helps to explain why it is often so difficult to get highly-educated scientists to innovate strategically - because their thinking tends to be trapped within small academic boxes - and why those scientists who are able to break out of traditional in-box-thinking and actually innovate, tend to be unpopular and driven out of the organisation. The innovation culture that is driven by academic models tends towards incremental innovation, and a fear of risk-taking which dares not challenge the prevailing formula for success that is in decay.

That is why the real innovator is likely to have taught themselves in the school of hard knocks and explains why the best thing you can do with an innovator is to help them do what they are going to do anyway but help them to do it better.

Victor Newman FRSA is a visiting professor at the University of Greenwich Business School


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