Online innovation: Technology or Humanology?

12th May 2020

One of my favourite stories is about the Sufi mystic, Nasrudin… A passing stranger saw Nasrudin one dark night, searching desperately for something on the ground. “What have you lost?” asked the stranger. “My key,” replied Nasrudin, with desperation in his voice. So, they both went on to their hands and knees to look for the key. After searching for some time, the stranger asked Nasrudin, “Where exactly did you lose it?” and the Sufi replied, “Outside my own house in the next street.” Confused, the stranger demanded to know why they were searching for the key in this place, to which Nasrudin replied, “Because the light is better here…”

I think of this story when I think about online innovation – a subject many of my clients are preoccupied with right now. A common assumption is that the light of technology will illuminate the process of innovation. Yet, this has not been my experience…

Innovating online is not really about technology. While technology has an undeniable part to play in innovation and transformation, it only provides possibilities for competitive edge through efficiency gains and customer insight. To innovate, we have to master humanology rather than technology. After all, it is the creative imagination which conceived technology, that is the key we must seek.

For me, ‘humanology’ is the discipline of applying our understanding of what makes people tick – especially in the fields of innovation, collaboration and change – to the business of leadership and cultural transformation. Five of the principles we work with at meus, in enabling innovation on both online and physical environments, include:

  • Don’t create – Co-create!   Collaboration is the key, and harnessing the potential between people – between teams across organisational silos; between businesses, their customers and stakeholders; and between sectors, is absolutely essential because Innovation is a team sport. Creativity depends on playfully making connections between things that – at first sight – don’t seem to belong together. In my own business, we have gained competitive advantage in the online training market through linking gaming technology with film-making and facilitation! Diversity of thinking supports innovation – and an online environment is a wonderful way to ensure cross-cultural collaboration. At meus we hold online ‘co-labs’ where we facilitate clients from globally-distributed teams to think together.
  •  Don’t come up with good ideas!   A research study some years ago got two groups of people to generate ideas. They had exactly the same brief, same time, same resources – but with one important twist: one group was asked to come with ideas, while the other group was asked to come up with good ideas… The surprise had nothing to do with the quantity of ideas generated… The surprise was that the quality of ideas of the group that did not have to focus on good ideas was vastly superior. It turns out that when we apply value judgments and quality criteria to our thinking, we decrease our capacity for innovation. We are much better being naïve: a different study conducted over decades gave 50 strands of spaghetti and some tape to various groups who had to build the tallest structure possible. The worst-performing group? Business School students. The best-performing group? Kindergarten. Kids! So if you want your people to come up with better quality ideas don’t put quality criteria in their way
  • File!   It’s not sexy, but one of the main findings of a Forbes Technology Council review in 20181 of why 70% of Digital Transformation initiatives fail, is the time wasted in unnecessary online administrative work which distracts people from time that could be better spent being creative, strategic and collaborative. The review notes: 

“We spend a quarter of our time looking for information. To add insult to injury, we typically search for files we created, archived in some data silo under a folder name we have forgotten. It is time to start consolidating (or at least pointing) these data sources into a single place where teams can access the data they need to do their jobs, in a self-service, real-time fashion.”

 When teams across the global corporations we facilitate, collaborate on innovation and transformation projects, we take time during project set-up to establish clear filing protocols in shared DropBoxes and intranets – and we police these protocols religiously! This not only saves our clients money and time – it really does free people up to perform vital knowledge-work…

  • Be here, now…  Many of our clients waste years trying to understand what technologies will drive business transformation five years from now, and in the process miss out on the innovation and transformation potential of tech that is applicable and accessible right now… An obvious example is the boom in the use of MS Teams, Zoom, Miro, Slack, Basecamp, Flock and more, for online collaboration (as a direct consequence of the Coronavirus crisis). Yet none of these applications are new or technologically radical! Stay current – use what you already have more fully and imaginatively! At meus we have massively improved our clients’ experience of us online, simply by using good quality external microphones and cameras, rather than relying on the cams and mics built in to Zoom and MS Teams. The quantifiable difference in image and sound quality is appreciated by clients who have to spend more time online than usual…
  • Mindset trumps tech-set.   However sophisticated your technology set-up is, if people do not have the right mindset and current organisational practices are flawed, any technology advantages will be neutralised. We spend time on our innovation and transformation projects, talking about the purpose, meaning and underpinning philosophy of what we are engaging people on. We also emphasise micro-practices like personal check-ins and group onboarding sessions for clients, to develop a sense of intimacy and camaraderie. This seems even more important and beneficial online than in person. Companies can be so tech-obsessed, that they miss the opportunity to develop cultures of innovation – a deciding-factor in establishing competitive advantage.


Steven Zobell, 2018, Why Digital Transformations Fail – Closing the $900 Billion Hole in Enterprise Strategy. Forbes Technology Council. March 13th 2018.

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