Progress and Innovation

Photo by Pavel Neznanov on Unsplash Photo by Marat Mazitov on Unsplash

There are times when change is a slow and the world has time to think. Other times, like the one we are living in now, bring frantic change that moves at a dizzying pace. In these days, words like progress and innovation are part of everyone's lexicon. 

So no one would blame you for saying that progress and innovation are convenient synonyms to describe what we are experiencing all around us. But in fact they are worlds apart. Progress is moving forward. Innovation is creating value through new ideas. Sometimes progress results in innovation and other times innovation makes progress possible. But they are different for reasons that really matter. 

In Walter Russell Mead's article "You Are Not Destined to Live in Quiet Times," he walks through the triumphs and tragedies of progress era by era. (It's a long read but you will be glad you read it.) One of his summarizing statements at the end says it well, "While the ever-accelerating and ascending wave of human progress has brought us to peaks of achievement and affluence that our ancestors could scarcely imagine, it has both failed to keep us safe from the most dangerous predators of all and—to the degree that the rate of progress has become a major force of destabilization—progress itself may now be the greatest source of danger humans face." 

In the end progress requires us to sacrifice everything to its ultimate aim of forward motion. Progress serves no one but itself. Along the way, it can be of great help to people, but its primary objective is not to help but to keep forward momentum. 

Innovation, on the other hand, is about creating value. And value is determined by the audience who is in search of a solution. Because of that innovation is at the service of the people it is designed to help. That is why concepts like empathy, listening and lean design are so foundational to the discipline of innovation. 

Why does this matter? If this is simply a semantic exercise, then you will likely continue on with your day without bothering to think about the difference between progress and innovation. Let's consider the promise of both progress and innovation to better understand the difference.

Yann Martel, the Canadian author who wrote the award-winning book Life of Pi, gives voice to the message of the modern era, "Progress is unstoppable. It is a drumbeat to which we must all march. Technology helps and good ideas spread - these are two lows of nature. If you don't let technology help you, if you resist good ideas, you condemn yourself to dinosaurhood!" 

In Martel's words we see the fundamental flaw in progress' promise. For progress to work it requires the fear of missing out. This fear is so commonplace in our society that we have shortened it simply to FOMO. Progress is the ultimate example of pragmatism. It is about any kinds of forward motion; achieved by any means. Fear is simply one of the most powerful ways to keep the wheels of progress turning. 

Instead of starting with pragmatism, innovation begins with people's values. For innovation to work it requires knowing your audience intimately and developing a solution to their need based on the values they espouse.  Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO, captures it well when he says, "Innovation is empathy turned into action." Because innovation requires having deep audience intimacy, the new ideas that result have at least a chance of being more human, not less. 

In the end, the wheels of progress will keep turning. Some will benefit and others will suffer. The only real winner of progress' demanding pace is the narrative itself. Simply put, progress is inevitable but it should be no one's goal. But innovation takes the momentum of progress and redeems it through responsiveness and practical solutions that align with people's values. Innovation is a worthy goal because it seeks to serve rather than be served. It may not always succeed, but it requires a posture of humility to submit your creativity to the needs of others. 

What will your legacy be? Will you be a cog in the wheels of progress or an innovator seeking solutions that bring value to those you serve?