the Profession of it
‘surfing toward the Future’
A new report from Chile about improving economic competitiveness advances
a novel interpretation of innovation. Timing is everything.
arrives. But there is no such thing as
a future-that-will-happen, only a set
of possibilities for what might happen. Unpredicted events can suddenly
change the picture, blocking our path
or opening up new and unanticipated
paths. These unpredictable events can
be almost anything such as a natural
disaster, an emergency, a new declaration by a leader, a new technology,
or a chance meeting of a new person.
There is no fixed path—such as a plan
would have you follow—to navigate
through such uncertainty.
EVeryBody, it seeMs, is inter- ested in innovation. Many professionals actively seek innovations to deal with im- mediate concerns, such as
product designs, and with long-term
concerns such as education, pensions,
and healthcare. Despite huge efforts,
success rates are low. A new report,
Surfing Towards the Future, by the Chil-ean National Council on Innovation
for Competitiveness led by Fernando
Flores, 3 gives an unprecedented account of how innovations emerge. It
proposes a skill set, “surfing history,”
based on reading waves of possibilities
and riding them to success. Crucial elements are the climate of exploration
and adventure, the timing, and balance when buffeted by the unpredictable. I organized my reflections on the
report as an interview.
you say that innovations are historical
emergences. what does that mean?
When you take a long view, you see
that innovations seem to appear at mo-
ments in history when the conditions
are most conducive. The conditions
are a need in the social community,
and the existence of a suitable technol-
ogy base. The innovation begins when
someone proposes a new combination
of existing technologies and compo-
nents to meet the need. Timing is deli-
cate and critical. Once the conditions
are “ripe,” several people may propose
the same innovation around the same
time. Many innovation proposals fail
because of poor timing: there is too lit-
tle interest in the social community or
the technologies needed to make them
work do not exist.
i hear frequently that innovations fail
because of management problems or
lack of creativity, not because of timing.
would not more management discipline
or cleverness lead to better results?
Strategic planning is one of man-
agement’s favorite tools. Unfortu-
nately, it is a broken concept. It as-
sumes implicitly that there is a fixed
future and we can position ourselves
for maximum return when that future