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By Douglas Moran

Politics: Empty appeals to "innovation"

Uploaded: Oct 19, 2014

The word "innovation" is widely bounced around in this campaign, both for Council and the School Board. Anyone actually involved in innovation knows that most innovations fail—the successes are the rare exceptions. And similarly in evolutionary biology (genetic mutations). One of my favorite admonitions from the tech industry is "You can always spot the pioneers—they are the ones with the arrows in their backs." Success in innovation—both creating it and adopting it—is crucially dependent on managing and minimizing the costs of the inevitable failures. If you don't, you won't still be alive when a successful innovation finally comes along.

The local tech industry is a very poor model for how you want to manage a city: You can burn through tens of millions of investors' dollars and walk away from a failed company with investors viewing that experience making you more valuable for the next one. With a city, you are making decision that you will be stuck with for decades.

In talking about the success of the D-Day invasion of Europe, General Eisenhower repeatedly emphasized the importance of the planning process: It forced them to have a deep understanding of the details and alternatives so that when their plans inevitably went awry, they were able to quickly come up with revised ones. Two of the variants that capture this are "Plans are useless, but planning is essential" and "Rely on planning, but never trust plans."

In politics, "innovation" is routinely used as a shield to avoid having to think about details such as costs and how to handle undesirable side-effects and consequences. When you hear politicians citing unspecified innovations as the solution to a problem, see it as an admission that they are clueless, lazy and/or disingenuous. "Hope is not a strategy." Instead listen for people who are talking about adopting innovations that someone else has successfully pioneered, and explaining why that success is likely transferable to your own local situation, and why the innovation has "cross the chasm" into the region where it is suitably cost-effective.

Unfounded belief in power of innovation is simply an (innovative?) update to the traditional unfounded belief in the power of reorganization:
"We trained hard - but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."

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