Yes, the title ‘when is technology bad for innovation’ is deliberately provocative. As illogical as it may seem, technology without constraint harms our ability to be innovative.

Before I go any further, I am not opposed to technology and in fact am the Chief Strategy & Product Officer for Wazoku, responsible for the product vision for our innovation management platform. I love the promise of technology and willingly try new things that have not yet made it into the mainstream. I wrote this article using a smart pen that allows me to write ‘old school’ with pen and paper and then upload and transcribe my words, with a good degree of accuracy; I know that technology and technological innovations are positive overall. So, you might be asking, why am I asking when technology is bad for innovation?

My scepticism comes from the growing observation that we often short circuit conversation and debate by defaulting to technology for quick answers. It’s not because the answer is unknown or the end result might be different if we didn’t ‘google it’; often the answer is incontrovertible. Rather the act of trying to convince someone who disagrees, sharing knowledge or teaching something new, is getting lost with instant access to the ‘right answer’. Innovation necessitates that we all develop and maintain these skills, or we unnecessarily limit our ability to innovate.

To make my point, let me share a personal example where I’ve seen the ubiquitous smart phone stop a lively debate by giving the definitive answer, causing our team to lose a chance to learn how to be better innovators – not that night, but in the future.

Last Christmas during our dev team Christmas dinner we were all sharing the jokes and
riddles from our Christmas crackers. One of the riddles presented the following question: if two balls, one glass and one rubber, were dropped from the same height, which one will bounce higher. To be clear, I recognise this is a physics question with a right answer (or at least a right answer if you remove any debatable parameters such as the type of glass ball and whether it would shatter on impact). Initially we had a lively debate as everyone picked a side and argued their theories. Given it was a riddle in a Christmas cracker, there was a certain presumption that the answer was likely to be the counter intuitive glass ball, but everyone was getting quite passionate about their position, providing detailed answers and analysis for their answer. There is a benefit to this debate as it gives teams a chance to learn effective ways to communicate and collaborate, to problem solve and to argue. Through the debate, we learn how each member of the team is inclined to argue their point – will they dig in their heels, even when presented with irrefutable evidence, will they back down when presented with a stronger voice, even if they believe they are right? These interactions are important to innovation because conflict is necessary for innovation and teams need to learn how to engage in this conflict constructively.

In the case of our Christmas cracker riddle, our lively debate came to a halt when someone pulled out their phone and found the answer. No more discussion, no more working together to figure out the solution. As I’ve already conceded, our conversation wasn’t going to change the laws of physics, but having the debate was important to the team in other ways, allowing team members to develop their soft skills, which are as important to effective and efficient innovation – analysis, problem solving, communication, persuasion. It makes me stop and question how many of these skills are being lost or undeveloped simply because we can find the answer with a 30-second search.

There are other ways technology can be bad for innovation. As a product designer, I often research other products to see how they have solved similar problems. This research allows me to design my product with familiar interaction patterns, making it easier for someone to quickly learn how to use my product or complete a new task.

There is, however, a risk with this reliance on quick access to patterns. Suddenly everyone is using the same pattern and solution and all applications start looking the same and a can become overused or misused. The card metaphor is an example of pattern du jour that has become so engrained in design that everyone is using it, oftentimes without considering whether it is the best choice for the design problem presented. Again, I’m not arguing against using familiar patterns that require less cognitive overhead, but rather that we be more diligent about how we use technology as it can hinder innovation by making it appeared as though the problem has already been solved, discouraging new and better patterns.

Without encouraging everyone to become a Luddite, the next time you are tempted to skip the test, whether it is making a persuasive argument or considering a problem from a new angle, stop. Use the old-fashioned tools; talk to your peers, make your case, draw the solution on the back of a napkin or a white board, and only then rely on technology to supplement your answer. Remember this the next time you are debating a question with friends and family, engage in the debate – it all make you a better innovator in the long run.