Innovation is more than just a buzzword today — it’s everything. If organizations aren’t considered innovative, they’re deemed also-rans.

The problem with this mindset? Innovation is often equated with the newest forms of technology, as if innovation can’t happen without a huge assist from tech.

Here’s our reality: Innovation can — and must — occur without being driven by technology. Humans must continue to come up with big, new ideas while in the shower, on the backs of napkins, and, most importantly, with each other in one-on-one, human-to-human conversations.

It’s this low-tech innovation that creates some of our best ideas. Yes, technology almost always becomes the backbone of these new concepts. But the innovation didn’t start there. It started with an epiphany on the drive home, in a meeting when an “aha” moment spontaneously occurred and in moments of quiet reflection.

Because ultimately, technology is all about the “what” and the “how” — and not the question of “why.”

Focus on the Why

The “why” is what drives us.

Our “why” gives us purpose, motivation and even hope. Our “why” helps us stay focused on what matters. It enables us to overcome barriers to success. It inspires us to work hard, to pivot when necessary and to finish.

It seems like the more technology we have available, the more corners we want to cut. Building something faster, taller and bigger seems more important than starting with a solid “why” foundation. As a result, we seem less willing to work hard. Far too often along the way, we forget our “why.”

Technology can dramatically improve what we do and how we do it. But it can’t touch our “why” — which is a purely human driver of action.

Is Technology Always a Good Business Partner?

Sure, we can use artificial intelligence to help us make evidence-based decisions — and we should. As we become a more virtual workforce, we should take full advantage of communication tools like Slack and Zoom. Software as a Service and the cloud make it easier than ever to collaborate with people all over the world.

But if we don’t maintain the right “why,” the technology doesn’t help. Look, for example, at what applicant tracking systems did for the candidate experience. Sure, they made the lives of employers and recruiters easier. But that “easier” often came at the expense of employers’ brands. While certainly innovative in concept, was ATS great technology? Was it the right kind of “why”? Or, despite the best intentions, did ATS cross into the technological dark side?

Humans and Technology

I am a recovering Silicon Valley engineer who, in 1984, had a first-of-its-kind IBM PCjr on my desk. A few years later, I bought a Macintosh before most people had even heard of Apple. I proudly owned one of the first (and biggest, I admit) cell phones ever made by Motorola, and was thrilled with my suction-cup-mounted Magellan GPS. Having worked in a virtual capacity since 1999, I have embraced new digital, networking and communication innovation and technology at every turn. I’m not exactly a Luddite.

So I know that humans will and must leverage technology. I understand that “humans and technology” is quite literally an “and” statement, not an “or” statement.

And yet, I know technology isn’t always the answer. Hundreds of startups and Fortune 500 companies have taken on employee engagement — yet 30 years and billions of dollars later we haven’t improved employee engagement one bit. We’ve designed the best chatbots available, but customers can easily leave those automated conversations unfulfilled. We’ve had a relentless focus on company culture for the past decade, with many technology platforms designed to help us monitor and improve both culture and climate in the workplace — yet the vast majority of employees still rate their corporate culture as poor.

Technology Can’t Replace Innate Human Characteristics

In each of the scenarios above, it isn’t that the technology was poorly designed or executed. And it isn’t that people weren’t grateful for the assist from technology. It’s that they missed what matters most. Leaders and managers who care enough to genuinely engage with employees — not just when prompted to by an app. Fellow human beings who want to build human-to-human relationships, no matter how momentary, strong enough to make customers happy. And CXOs and team members who set out to build and invest in company culture where people feel valued and have a sense of belonging.

It is these simple human characteristics — caring, relationship-building and deliberate top-down attention to what matters most — that make our organizations “innovative.”

Because no matter how much we rely on technology to get the job done, it’s just along for the ride (unless we’re talking autonomous cars). Technology serves us well as the delivery mechanism. But it isn’t the difference-maker.

People provide that spark of innovation. We are the irreplaceable human factor.

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