Innovation is not Sexy


Innovation is hard work–much harder than the headlines will admit, and much more complicated than the colored post-its let on. While researching government innovation, I’ve had the opportunity to interview several leaders of innovation teams in cities across the country–and the conclusion from all their stories is clear: innovation is not sexy work. 

Innovation is at its best when it’s supported by data, research, and lots of outputs. It doesn’t happen overnight–it takes patience. While many exciting new start-ups disappoint, the companies and cities doing real innovation that leave us pleased as consumers and citizens are putting in the time and effort to build lasting innovations, sometimes in unnoticeable incremental changes. Sometimes the output is a great new app; other times, it’s changes to a boring process that makes a big difference.   

That’s not to say that innovation is not also exhilarating. But I’d argue that the best innovation isn’t sexy–it’s not a fun and quick creative brainstorming session followed by a perfect product that solves a problem. It’s not the big speech, launch party, and press. The best innovation requires searching through data to scope and frame the problem, piloting and iterating on potential solutions, failing and starting again, spending time with end users, collaborating with partners, and finally, finally, implementing and scaling changes. And then starting the cycle again. All of that takes time, logistics, and resources–the sometimes boring, often hard, typically unsexy jobs. Even the design thinking sessions many love are more than meets the eye. Behind the scenes of a two-hour design workshop is hours of scoping the problem, developing an agenda, and organizing supplies. 

My friend Smiley, author of a book on meaningful work, recently posted a helpful reminder on Facebook: all work has a desk. Advocates of meaningful work often tell us to “quit our desk job and do what we love.” But Smiley reminds us that all work–even the most innovative kind we’re most passionate about–has a desk, whether it’s at a coffee shop, in-between field visits, or yes, at an office bursting with innovation. The desk is not just a metaphor for a physical space where work is completed; no matter what job you have, there will be times when it’s constraining, and not that fun. 

I’m of the belief that everyone can learn how to incorporate innovation and creativity into their job and life. To do it right, we need to embrace the unsexy aspects, and get to work.


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