If you want to innovate, stop thinking about technology

If you want to innovate, don’t start by thinking about technology.

Think about people.

In fact, take technology completely out of the equation, by banning it in innovation discussions, at least until you know what you want technology to do for you.

The reason for this is that technology should serve people.

Not the other way around.


People first. Then technology.

Technology should facilitate, improve, enable, [insert verb] a human function.

If you start with technology, you will miss the unmet human need, but it is here in which the real innovation lies.

Focusing on technology will firstly lead to incremental improvement [boring and likely to have been done], and secondly leave you stuck in a ‘today’ mindset [already patented]. However much you think you are innovating, you are not – you are improving.

Improving is not innovating.

If you really want to innovate, start with people.

Think about and example their lives; their wants; their needs; their desires.

NOT those of technology.

Start at the most basic level by understanding what people want to do, what doesn’t work today?

What is slow? Complex?


Then start to think about how you would feel when this is fixed NOT how it is fixed.

Focus on what you want fixing and what the problem is.

Leave the solution until the end. And if you have anyone with the word ‘architect’ in their title, then leave it to them to tackle this one. Just make sure that you present them with a clear definition of what is wrong, and what you want the system or process to feel like.

When you understand what people want, the hard work is done. Building the technical solution may be challenging, but if you know what you are building and what you want it to do, then you are well on your way.

It is easy to think of past innovations and retroactively apply this logic, so lets think about the future.

The future of healthcare.

If you ask people to think about the future of healthcare, the discussion quickly shifts to the role of technology: remote consultations, PC based home diagnoses, hand-held (Star Trek Scotty) style devices … and so on.

But whilst this may be part of the future, it is missing real innovation.

All of these ideas are either available or in development.

If you want to innovate, start with people and ask about their experiences today.

What would be their dream way of interacting with a doctor?

If money was no object, how would healthcare work?

If John Lewis ran a hospital, how would it be different?

What would you tell your doctor/dentist that he should stop/start doing?

These human questions, focused on today are the ones that will give you the insight to understand what is broken.

What are the unmet needs and what are the aspirations of healthcare users and professionals.

Meet these – solve these problem and then you are innovating.

The solutions will in many cases require new technology – this is fine – but before you include this as a solution, ask a simple question …

‘Is technology solving a human problem?’

If the answer is yes, then carry on.

If the answer is no, then go back to the problem and reexamine it, because you have not found the human need.

So all of this sounds very simple.

Very straightforward.

Want to know the honest truth?

It is.

Envisioning, futurology, scenario forecasting is a doddle to do.

Getting it right though …

That is very, very hard.

The lure of technology, the gadget, the quick fix is always there. And almost always wrong, because the solution focuses within the paradigm of how we see the problem and define the solution.

Focus on people though, and your chances of success are significantly increased.

This is because human needs evolve much slower than technology.

And innovation is where you close that gap. You make technology better fit the unmet human need.

It doesn’t sound too hard, but it is amazing how many people and companies get this wrong.

So the next time you are asked to innovate, challenged to think about the future, and think ‘what can be’ …

Don’t start with the technology, start with people.

I guarantee your insights will have the professionals reaching for their notepads.


4 thoughts on “If you want to innovate, stop thinking about technology

  1. mofeenster

    What an innovative viewpoint on innovation. Do you think that innovation can exist within predetermined restrictions, like technology?

  2. Gary Burt Post author

    Great question. You raise a good point. My response would be that it depends on the audience.

    I think you can absolutely have innovation within predetermined restrictions – however the innovation benefits are maximised when the human benefits are noticeably improved. Put more simply, if you innovate, but there is no human benefit – who cares?

    If you innovate the design of a spanner – the value of the innovation is judged by the value of the human benefit generated. It may be improved in a range of ways – but the judgement of innovation comes in the improvement in human benefit. If you can make it lighter, stronger and cheaper – then there is clearly a human benefit. If you can make it grip better, slip less and handle rounded nuts, and generate more power (and therefore be usable by the elderly) then the innovation is much greater, because the marginal increase in human benefit is greater. You can do things that you couldn’t do before. To the elderly, this may provide a previously unattainable human function. The best example of this type of innovation in practice is Oxo Good Grips with their redesign of kitchen tools.


    It would be easy to assume that you could not innovate a utilitarian device such as a peeler. Oxo looked at the human need and innovated. They created a huge business from this. At a human level, they empowered the infirm, elderly, those with fine motor control challenges to cook again. And in the process build a multi-million dollar business.

    Another example.

    An MRI machine – GE innovated by designing a new patient experience when using the machine. They didn’t spend millions on incrementally improving the machine – they innovated the patient experience for children. The machine didn’t fundamentally change – other than being painted. They focused on the problems in using the machine [children found it frightening and scary], so they redesigned the environment. The benefit increase to children was massive: less sedation = healthier and less risky, fun environment = lower anxiety for children, parents and medical teams … and so on. How do you measure this? As a parent, this is almost priceless.


    This is innovation.

    If the GE team had sat in a brainstorming room and said that they needed to ‘innovate’, would they have identified this innovation? I doubt it.
    By removing technology, the discussion focuses on the human. By thinking about what we want as ‘people’, we fundamentally redefine the problem.

    What is perhaps most amazing is the cost/benefit of this. It is hard to think of improvements to MRI equipment that would not come with pricetags in the millions and development and approval processes taking years.

    My point is that focuses on technology causes the discussion to start with the solution – not the problem. Only by examining the problem from a human perspective will you find real innovation. Once you understand the problem and the goal, your view of what is the appropriate technology can fundamentally change. As happened with GE and some paint.

    I’m not underestimating the value of pure technology innovation, at the end of the day, the value will be judged by how it improves our lives.

    Not a bad goal to aim for.

    1. mofeenster

      That was well said and understand that you are stating the point of “who cares” if there is no human benefit. I was thinking along the lines of someone using an existing piece of technology to improve human experience. Say for example there are some great iPhone apps that use the native technology to improve usability. Or now we have some great banking apps that enable quick bank transfers at the push of a button.

      That i find innovative.

      I am sure there are some greater examples out there.

  3. Gary Burt Post author

    Agreed. An application can be incredibly innovative. Mint in the US certainly is. You could argue that the Wonga service is (although I despise the principle on which it operates). There are some great health apps and some great hardware which are truly innovative. I personally find the Nike+ app brilliant. The Garmin Connect service is fantastic too. I think we are only starting to understand how accessible data and easy to use analytics, whether in healthcare or finance can help change behaviours.


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