Innovation and Reflection

About a year ago I blogged about Matthew May’s ChangeThis Manifesto: Mind of the Innovator. Looking at innovation processes, he drew attention to our preferences for generating ideas and implementation – and our reluctance to reflect on the nature of the problem at the start and the effects of the solution at the end, of the process.

Often in day-to-day conversation, people leap to solutions. If someone says something suggesting stress or distress, we leap to “why don’t you…” without really taking the time to get clear on what real nature of the situation is. In therapy, there’s a well-established adage about being wary of the “presenting problem” which very often isn’t the real issue.

Similarly, we like to talk about whether things worked or not, rather than how they worked out. That seems to reflect our impatience with evaluation, taking time to pay attention to the full consequences of an action or process.

This relates closely to what Jack Leith‘s been saying about innovation being reduced to “brainstorming and project management”. I think it also becomes something of a status game: having ideas and (especially) making them happen can be high status games. Asking reflective questions often seems low status by comparision, and groups of people are often very uncomfortable with the silences that come with reflection.

I’ve also been thinking more about the point Bob Geldof surfaced at the recent NESTA conference: that innovation happens in response to need. Talking about needs may require us to show vulnerability – again risking appearing low status compared to the “ideas-people” and “doers”. (Interestingly, just today I found this nugget demonstrating a cultural default to not asking for help.)

Much of what is written about innovation seems to present it as a rather linear, efficient, controllable process of stage-gates. And/or something that happens at high tempo in response to lots of stimulants. In some organisations the innovation process seems to have been reduced to gantt charts and neat little boxes and arrows. All of this strikes me as bit hyper and probably lacking the humanity that might attach inventive thinking to stuff that really matters to people.

I’m more for holding space: supporting conditions in which people can take time and feel more at ease to talk about their needs and understandings with less pressure to generate solutions. In fact, I sometimes think we might do well to change the subject from “innovation” altogether.

1 thought on “Innovation and Reflection

  1. Priyanka

    “Talking about needs may require us to show vulnerability – again risking appearing low status compared to the “ideas-people” and “doers”.”

    This really struck a chord with me. I find myself doing it a lot – when I write, when I talk and when I blog.

    Personally, I find it easier (though it risks appearing a little angsty) to do this around more senior people, so I can be honest about what I need to learn – though, increasingly, it is about meeting more linear demands, so going ‘off piste’ with creativity is bloody difficult..


    I agree with you on this. Sometimes people might forget the fundamental reasons for innovating and just follow the “rules” of innovation. This might make it seem dehumanized.

    Recently we had a post on our blog ( which said that innovation was a result of disruptive thinking. So there cannot really be any set charts and boxes and arrows to make it happen. Probably these are suggested as tools to make employees think in these directions.


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