David Rowan: Non-Bullshit Innovation

Innovate, disrupt, break things. The fashionable modern business mantra – talking the talk – comes easy. Walking the walk, genuine, culture-shifting, behaviour-changing innovation, requires a different set of muscles. David Rowan, the founding editor of the UK edition of Wired and now an advisor to and investor in young technology companies, calls this lip service to urgent transformation ‘inno-babble’. In his new book, Non-Bullshit Innovation: Radical Ideas from the World’s Smartest Minds, Rowan does his best to get beyond that babble and describe the mechanics of genuine innovation; ‘using fresh thinking and new tools to build future-facing value,’ as he describes it.

In the opening exchange of this year’s Breakthrough programme at Second Home Clerkenwell, Rowan talked through the book’s key case studies and take-aways with John Thornhill, Innovation Editor at the FT and founder and editorial director of the new FT-backed start-up watcher Sifted,

Non-Bullshit innovation is very much a solid reporting job rather than a collection of inspirational chants and takes in twenty countries and bounces between Lima and Helsinki, the Pentagon and a dusted-off Mayfair bookshop and from games designers to structural engineers through pizza deliverers and saucepan makers to diversifying banks and airlines.

Most of those Rowan talked to aren’t start-ups but rather long-established operations who have innovated to tackle legacy issues and rapid change, often completely re-imagining their core-businesses and finding smart but complementary new things to do. They are companies who have understood that the ‘internet is coming for them’, as Rowan says. And made tech-assisted pivots to avoid getting pushed off the road. Often these pivots – from selling books to curating libraries, banking to providing healthcare and opening schools – have involved shifting from product to service, tangential leaps but never un-tethered from discernible customer demand.

Many, Rowan notes, have had an unusual freedom of movement because they are not beholden to share-holders and the short-term demands of the market but are family operations, co-ops or trusts. And they have a clear culturally-embedded mission or social purpose beyond generating revenue (though Rowan is clear that innovation – bringing invention to market by one definition – is only innovation proper if it can make a profit). Innovation, counterintuitively perhaps, involves staying true to yourself or an idea of what you are fundamentally there to do.

Rowan’s non-bullshit innovators have also imagined their own demise, often designing the kind of agile, tech-savvy upstart that could be their undoing and learned to live with it and from it. This constant internal disruption, says Rowan, requires a corporate culture that encourages maximum autonomy. “At the best organisations the boss doesn’t want to have all the power, they wants to delegate,” he says.

Rowan has a particular fascination with X, Alphabet’s ‘moonshot’ factory; the psychology safety net it offers its teams of innovators; the careful engineering of diverse inputs and “unlikely juxapositions” within those teams; and its fine-tuned viability engine, the ability of a team to kill its own projects if they don’t up commercially, whatever the emotional and financial investment up to that point. And the way it celebrates those kill moments and the lessons learned. Ultimately, Rowan argues, X-level innovation comes down to the right teams and the right culture. “You need to create joy and purpose for good people.”

Written by Nick Compton

David Rowan was speaking at Second Home Clerkenwell Green as part of our Breakthrough Fortnight, where together with Index Ventures and Sifted we brought the entrepreneurs and innovators behind now famous companies like DeliverooFarfetchMumsnet and Bulb together to reveal the stories behind their world-changing businesses.