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JOHANNESBURG - You're unlikely to find anyone who is not a fan of innovation. Innovative ideas revive industries, they create new ones, they drive economies.

Unfortunately, our actions don’t always support innovation. This may come from a combination of not understanding how innovators think, and what environment they need to thrive. Ironically, businesses that most require innovation often have the least conducive conditions. It’s worthwhile, then, to understand the psychology of innovation.

Innovators require certain conditions. First, you need a problem that needs solving, and importantly you need to be able to acknowledge that you have a problem. An innovator sits with a problem and sees a better way. Additionally, you need confidence and courage or at very least a supportive environment that can tolerate errors.

But there’s a third element to the psychology of innovation. An innovator is an optimist. They have a positive disposition that sees a solution, but crucially, also believes that the solution can be executed. So you need this unique blend of, on one hand, dissatisfaction (“I see something can be made better”) and on the other optimism and faith (“yes, I can fix this”).

These principles apply equally to the very close cousins of the innovator - the entrepreneur and the investor. All identify a need or shortcoming; they must all be confident that there’s a way out; and they must also be optimistic and have faith that they can implement that solution.

In the South African context, we certainly have significant needs that require solutions, but do we have the optimism and confidence that we can make our ideas work?

Confidence is often innate, but it can be nurtured and fostered in several ways. One of them is the knowledge that your understanding and subsequent decisions are well informed. The more certainty, the less risk, and the more confidence the better the chances of meaningful innovation.

Decision-making confidence exists on a continuum. On the one side is absolute scientific clarity, on the other is pure faith, where one lacks any empirical evidence to make a call. The more one is closer to side on objective certainty, the less the need for innate confidence to innovate. Very seldom are business decisions found on the pole of absolute certainty, an element of risk is required.

To reassure innovators that it is worth taking risk, we need to build an environment where innovators are safe from a technical, market and socio-political perspective.

Science can clearly ratify the technical feasibility of an idea. With simulation and virtual reality technology, we’re now able to envisage operational realities with greater granularity and predictive accuracy than ever before.

Modern operational modelling techniques and technologies can today make technical operational predictions about production and cost extraordinarily certain. Predicting markets are more challenging. However, huge strides are being made in this realm too. The Internet of Things is enhancing the data available. As a result, knowledge of buying patterns is improving. This data is being used to build astonishingly accurate prediction models, which in turn build confidence and fosters innovation.

In addition to operational and market decisions, another important realm of business decision making relates to the socio-economic and political environments. Sadly, these important macro trends are the least rational and the most difficult to predict with confidence.

This reassurance cannot come from science (for now?). It must come from the culture, attitudes and policies of South African politicians and society at large. If it’s not forthcoming, the innovator, the entrepreneur and the investor may be inclined to rather not try. Why risk it all in the face of debilitating uncertainty? Far better to keep your head down, stay in your job, or move overseas, where the environment is easier to predict, and tolerate trial and error.

And it’s a vicious cycle - the more one fails, the more anxious one gets. The most anxious one gets, the less the confidence to try again, and as a result there is less innovation and less chance of success. An environment that fosters innovation needs its success stories. I wonder if we have enough in contemporary South Africa?

Concern, be it real or perceived, soon becomes an excuse for innovators, entrepreneurs and investors to not act at all. With it goes the potential for growth, the money and the attendant prospects and possibilities. To prevent that happening, we have to create clarity about the environment.

Government policy

Government policy can certainly mitigate against business uncertainty, but so too can the attitude and behaviour of corporate leaders. An authoritarian persona, or an overly bureaucratic process are equally destructive

Rhetoric sets the tone for these social attitudes. “Mere rhetoric” is a misnomer, it may seem like “mere talk”, but from the point of view of the investor, the innovator, and the entrepreneur, it can be crucial. These people’s decisions are shaped by confidence, which is shaped by some of this rhetoric.

South Africa is a country of hardy rebels and revolutionaries with a strong culture of innovation. We have done amazing things in the frontiers of social, political, commercial and technological innovation.

However, all of that comes to nought, if there is authoritarianism, negativity and a lack of clarity on the rules. All these things sap confidence. It’s the job of the corporations to create that culture, as much as it is the job of the country, and it’s the job of the policymakers.

Courageous optimistic leadership will break the cycle and create the environment for the entrepreneurs, the innovators and the investors to take chances and to flourish. Leaders in government and business must understand this, and in a very real way give each of the courage to initially provide more certainty and ultimately inspire. Just do that, and then leave it to the innovators to create the solutions that will provide the growth and prosperity the country needs.

Companies must encourage the innovators in their ranks.

An innovator is a precious sapling, to be protected, nurtured and encouraged. Only then can it grow into the kind of mighty oak that can help sustain a society and support an economy.

Elton Bondi is the chief executive of Business Science Corporation.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

- BUSINESS REPORT ONLINEax