Dr Carlos Osorio: “Innovation is about igniting impact through failure and discovery, not about creating something cool”

Dr Carlos Osorio is BMI Institute Professor of Innovation & Digital Transformation from Chile. His work focuses on innovation strategy and processes. Dr Osorio has been visiting faculty at top universities including MIT and Harvard. He is also co-founder of Yuken Impact Research Lab, and co-author of (Defi)2, the method for innovation and design capability-building that was awarded the Wharton QS Reimagine Education Award for Teaching Delivery, as the best method for learning innovation. He is currently an associate professor of Innovation at Universidad del Desarrollo (Chile) and an external consultant on innovation to the Lemelson-MIT Program on Education for Invention.

We spoke with Dr Osorio about some fundamental aspects of innovation in today’s world.

What makes us innovate? How do we seek innovative solutions?

The major sources of innovation are problems, needs, anomalies, catastrophes, any gap in performance. We’re driven to innovate by a combination of human curiosity, the need to explore, and the desire to solve those problems, satisfy those needs, address anomalies, and recover from catastrophes.

Why is it especially during wars and crises that society experience a surge in innovation? Do we need to be in trouble to innovate?

Troubles are great triggers for innovation. Catastrophes are known to be among the best sources of innovation. We have two main states: efficiency and creativity. Our “efficiency” mode is good during “business-as-usual”, but rather ineffective during catastrophes. Why? Because in a totally changed environment our well-established “best practices” no longer apply, and are not even “good”. So, to increase our chances of survival and recovery, we have to be creative and devise new ways to face the new problems.

Henry Ford once said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” What are the key elements behind great, world-changing innovations?

Ford was right about asking people. But if he had known some of the innovation methods we use nowadays for empathy-driven research, he might have discovered that people did not need horses. What they needed was transportation that was faster, more secure, less smelly, and less moody. He would have concluded that horses were not the answer. We must not forget that he didn’t invent the car. But he might even have invented something better than his production line.

The key elements behind innovations? First, understanding that innovating is more difficult than risky. Second, realizing that ideas are secondary to understanding why you are innovating. Third, realizing that innovating is about finding a new technical solution that addresses people’s deepest needs and problems in a way that is socially, environmentally, and financially viable.

A fourth factor is understanding innovation as a team effort, instead of a solo journey. And finally, fifth is having a sound innovation process, one that allows the team to manage the discovery-driven journey of experimenting and learning to discover the real question hidden in every challenge; failing soon, fast, repeatedly, and cheap until you find the best possible solution; and executing that solution to ignite impact as fast as possible.

Why do so many innovative ideas fail (or never get developed)?

An idea that never gets developed is not innovative. It’s just an idea whose creators weren’t clever enough to understand its fit and timing to the market. Just because an idea is new does not make it good, innovative, or even desirable in the long run.

Ideas are supposed to fail. Many “good” ideas fail because of bad execution. Development teams may create, find and test hundreds or even thousands of ideas for a single innovation project until they discover which combination creates the best solution. The art and science of failure is making them fail at the beginning, so they don’t fail at the end of a project, after you have made irreversible investments.

What role do leaders play in the process of innovating? Has it changed due to the pandemic?

The role of leaders is to create the contextual and internal conditions so their teams can perform in the best possible ways amid the worst possible external conditions. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that COVID only made leaders even more relevant and innovation processes more necessary.

There were many innovations in 2020: vaccines against COVID-19, the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card rapid antigen test, a portable defibrillator, the WireGuard safe VPN for virtual workspaces, and more. Many are directly related to the global pandemic. Where do you see the most potential for innovation this year?

I’m always cautious with lists of “Innovations of the Year”, because most of those innovations began incubating a decade earlier, on average, which makes it hard to become a relevant player at this stage in the game. To discover where there is potential for innovation, we have to look at signs of problems and pains we are experiencing now.

Some time ago, I shared with my students a list of more than 230 emerging technologies with various degrees of potential that are currently being developed. You would be amazed of what’s on that list. As Peter Drucker said, the best way to predict the future is to create it. 2021 is the present, which others already invented.

In your experience, what can be done to unlock people’s potential as innovators?

Here are a couple of basic tips, besides what we already discussed on your previous questions. Innovation is about igniting impact, not about creating something cool. Most disruptive innovations are not cool when they start out. Innovation potential is unlocked when it is driven by discovery, enabled by empathy, and fuelled by failure as well as sweat and effort.

More on BMI Knowledge: Leading in the land of crisis and recovery