Have we spent the last decade doing innovation wrong?

Have we spent the last decade doing innovation wrong?

Richard HILL  

Programme Co-Director; 

Client Director of Møller Institute, 

Churchill College, 

University of Cambridge.

In the twenty-first century, when we think of the word ‘innovation’ it is invariably welded to another – ‘disruption’. 

This has become the mantra of any organisation that wants to set itself apart; no self-respecting pitch deck misses out on a description of how the ecosystem/market/industry will be permanently disrupted by what is on offer.

The potential disruption that can be created has become a proxy for the potential value that an innovation has. This has meant that we have become more interested in ‘what’ should be changed than ‘why’ it must be changed. ‘Disruption’ itself has become the product, rather than a means to effect change. 

Since Clayton Christensen coined and developed the term Disruptive Innovation in the mid-1990s there have been many examples of innovations which have turned our expectations of product and service upside down. Built mainly on the foundations of technological invention, these successes have driven others to emulate their methods, approaches and outcomes – but in replicating the outward appearance of these game-changers do we ignore the opportunity that truly lies at the heart of successful innovation?

The measure of truly valuable innovation lies in the impact it has. Disruption is just one dimension of impact; true impact considers the broad canvas on which we act.

To think purely about disruption is to ignore the consequences of how we innovate. If we make an effort to overturn the status quo we must make an equal effort towards understanding how this change creates ripples across the environment we are operating within.

If we make it easier for individuals to access short-term property rentals, we need to know the impact this has on the communities these properties are in; if we reduce the cost and increase the availability of taxis, we need to know the effect this has on drivers’ livelihoods; if we create global community networks we need to understand how information flows and can be manipulated within these communities.


Innovation does not happen in a vacuum, and while principles of disruption acknowledge this, we often are selective about the dimensions we work within.

While the last decade has been full of innovation which has been widespread across industries and geographies, has its very nature made it much narrower than it should have been?

As we close the first quarter of this century and embark on embedding the progress which this era will be defined by, we need to actively engage with the full spectrum of consequences our actions create. Our focus needs to be on impact.

This is not simply an ethical or ‘good corporate citizen’ issue – it is a business necessity: our customers demand it. Whether individual consumers concerned about the carbon footprint of items they purchase, or institutional investors looking closely at ESG aspects of their portfolios, all products and services are under closer scrutiny as to the ripples of impact they create. Regulatory bodies too are more concerned about managing the broad frameworks under which organisations operate, with financial and environmental conduct becoming lenses through which business is governed.

Our challenge is to mirror the world of those we serve – as we innovate for the future we must seek to not just change things, but make them better in every aspect. This must not be a one-dimensional improvement – not just efficiency, or consumer focus, or service delivery, for example – but multifaceted as it reflects the many dimensions of the ecosystem we operate in.

Innovation for the future must have impact at its core. Without this we may not succeed – in fact, we may not even know what success even is.




Participants who successfully complete this course will receive a Certificate endorsed by the University of Cambridge’s Board of Executive and Professional Education (BEPE) and Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB), and become a member of our Global Impact Leadership Community.