Novation: Innovation, pared down to the core

I know the adrenaline rush that comes with a new idea. In that moment, the possibilities are endless. But innovation should be more than just the creation of something new; it should be the creation of something lasting and meaningful. Truly innovative ideas often take time to emerge, and they are usually more about taking away rather than adding to. Like any good journey, they lead to unexpected outcomes that seem obvious only in retrospect.

When I designed a six-month diet and exercise program for myself last fall, I never expected that learning to feel full would turn out to be the most important outcome. I tried out seven different iPhone apps and started wearing a Fitbit 24 hours a day, and I generally dove into the Quantified Self movement. But in the end I discovered the feedback I needed to lose weight was built into the very enzymes and systems of my body. That doesn’t mean those apps and a little electronic pedometer weren’t useful; they were valuable steps along the path to finding the best solution for myself: becoming aware of my own body.

It’s the difference between layering on more complexity and peeling the layers away to find a simple solution already embedded in the system. We tend to throw both of these approaches together under the name “innovation,” but they lead to vastly different outcomes. We’ve started using “novation” around our office to distinguish the two. The emphasis on the “no” is our shorthand for editing down, getting smaller, making simpler.

That’s the first key of novation: not just remembering that less is more, but it’s corollary, more is less.

Recently, during an interview with a reporter about our Workplace Lab, I was asked what I thought of the new Smart Fork that was introduced at CES 2013. The HAPIfork vibrates when you’re eating too quickly. I thought it was absurd. The way to figure out if you’re eating too quickly isn’t adding a bunch of electronics to your fork, it’s watching your fork with your eyes.

But as we talked about it, I realized it might lead to a good outcome. If using a HAPIfork for a few days helps you become more conscious of your eating it could be a valuable step, but only if, in the end, you get back to the tools that are built into your body and mind: your hands, your eyes, and your ability to notice.

This is the second key of novation: know the difference between creating a shiny new pattern and finding the good patterns that are already part of the system.

While your body will send a signal to your brain telling you that you’re full, you have to be paying attention to hear it, and your behaviors can get in the way. Lack of sleep and refined sugar can dampen the effects of the enzyme that indicates fullness, and being distracted by eating while you’re doing something else probably doesn’t help, either.

At $100, the HAPIfork is an expensive way to learn the lesson that eating too fast can make you fat. But, if it is just a step on the way – an external signal that helps you identify and pay attention to a signal that your body is already sending you, it might be helpful. But so could getting more sleep, which has other benefits besides making you more sensitive to your own internal signals.

That’s the third key to novation: you have to go through the complexity, see the system and all it’s moving parts, and be open to seeing interactions that you weren’t expecting in order to discover which patterns to peel away and which to amplify.

Getting to a simple answer is easy, but simple is not enough. We use the language of novation to ensure that we’re looking for good answers; answers that are hidden in the systems we want to improve, and which must be dug out, dusted off, and tested before we know if they’re the novation we’re looking for.

Or as Oliver Wendell Holmes said “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Design grounded in novation results in simple, immediately useful, and lighter-weight responses that meet the needs of people. A novation does not coerce or exploit, it is empathetic, and aligned with the people who need it because it is distilled from the systems that those people are already a part of.

Jethro Heiko's picture
Jethro Heiko is a partner at The Action Mill