Innovation, disruption, control etc

This is a more than averagely rambling post but when I read Alan Moore’s thoughts about about innovation it fired off a few too many synapses for a really coherent response.

Author Alan Bennett, once wrote that ordinary people can be instruments of the sublime when a situation arises which they must confront and engage with.

Bob Geldof made a similar point at a NESTA bash a few months back, where he said innovation happens naturally in response to strong need, linking Ireland’s dire poverty to its subsequent reputation for innovation.

This is a hobbyhorse for me as I think so many innovation processes are simply toxic to creating conditions in which people feel moved to acknowledge real needs. Bureaucracies flourish by subordinating spontaneous human responses and awareness to standardised systems. Organisational hierarchy means we’re going to be guarding our status before we share anything resembling our vulnerability.

And for me, the very phrase “innovation process” verges on oxymoronic; innovation goes with disruption and disruption is what processes (typically) endeavour to eliminate.

On top of this, as Alan argues, once an idea has been generated in response to need, it’s quite likely to take on a life of it’s own. It’s not linear. So the Tour de France was invented by L’Equipe to maintain sales but went on to become something altogether bigger. Money bonds in Italy were devised to support internecine wars but evolved into a banking system. And there’s an extended story debuking the somewhat preposterous idea that Westminster is the “mother of parliaments”. In an earlier post I cited how the initiator of disruption is often not the main beneficiary.

All of which further challenges people’s claims to be able to manage innovation. Yet claims to be the transformative agent are rife – even among folks who’ve been on the whole Web 2.0 bandwagon for a long time, who talk about radical change and then seem to imply that they know how to organise the whole thing for their big name clients.

Al is writing in the context of a discussion with Euan about coercion:

There are no conscripts in the networked society, only volunteers, said Euan quoting Drucker, and he additionally observed that coercion is a very poor way to inspire people to deliver their very best work inside organisations.

I like to talk about “coalitions of the willing” as a way of thinking about how to get things done in a networked world.

How to relate to people without coercion is certainly a question to live in rather than answer. I do a lot of work with Open Space which heads in that direction and gets to some interesting places. One of its challenges is that quite often, when conventional structures for doing stuff are weakened, we’re faced with slightly scary realisation that we may not actually know what we really want to do. Some practitioners call it “freedom shock”, and one way to deal with it is to demand structure so we don’t have to sit with the awful ambiguity.

(A client who was going to run his own Open Space was chatting with me about how to do it and we got on to the subject of lunch. Specifically, whether it should be inside or outside. He wondered if he should set a guideline “so things don’t descend into chaos”. I teased him that if he really thought people having different ideas of where to eat their lunch was chaos, he needed to get out more.)

My own view is that we can do without far more of our organisational rituals than we think without genuine chaos descending, because there are loads of unconscious signals and markers by which human beings manage to share space. We’re usually too busy thinking, planning and organising to notice, but in moments of silence and peace I think we can sense something holding us together way more exciting and energetic than any organisational diagram.

One way of thinking about this appears recently in Dave Snowden’s blog. He writes about drivers and modulators. If we let go of the idea of being drivers or needing to drive, we may come to see what we may all be modulators, who have influence but not control, who are connected to the system and not outside it.

I emphasised the not being outside as I think the sense of being outside the system is connected an awful lot of misery we impose on ourselves or others. Misery for us, if it means we feel we don’t belong and are powerless: we’re under this system. Misery for others, if we think we understand the system and are therefore able and entitled to control it: We’re above this, you see.

(I often think when someone draws a diagram to explain a human system they inevitably, if unintentionally, place themselves outside it and probably above it.)


1 thought on “Innovation, disruption, control etc

  1. Alan Moore

    I did indeed laugh out loud when I read your post @ the point where your colleague mused on lunch inside or outside to avoid chaos. Hmmmm…

    As you so eruditely explained John.

    Unless people have not got it yet, creativity exists in chaos. And in that chaos some of us see something that others don’t, can’t or won’t. We see potential, whilst others see aggravation, we break all the rules, whilst others try to keep them, we say why not when others say you can’t, we say fuck you when you get all silly about ROI and measurement. Because you just can’t measure extraordinary things.

    For example, since you mentioned the Tour de France and so do I. Lets imagine a national newspaper, or regional newspaper group that is on its knees, comes to its agency and media company and says, we need to do something drastic to help us get out of this deep dodaaaah thats sloshing around our knees. So some brilliant mind says, yeah, I know lets create something like the Tour de France, but for the equivalent around Britain, and lets re-invent what advertising is to meet the needs of the networked society. Because we live in a search economy connected to a link economy where we look for information that is life-enabling, life-simplifying and navigational. The quality of the communication we receive is judged on its ability to enable us to take and make better decisions.

    Of course you can’t measure that shit, so it doesn’t get made. But what these efficiency nutters can do really well is fire people, cut costs and make the figures look nice.

    But the days of efficiency are well over, as we indeed descend into “chaos”. Media, business, organisations and governments are all up for grabs in the networked society. As power relationships are being redefined.

    It certainly bemuses me that the McKinseys of this world are now, ahem, “innovation experts”. Fuck me, I would love to see that in action. Does that mean they are now hiring from Goldsmiths, and refuse to take anyone with an MBA?

    The Do Lectures that I attended in Wales over the weekend were amazing, and highly innovative and creative – and I challenge anyone that “manages creativity & innovation” to do what what Dave Hieatt did and have people spend a week in tents ‘n’ teepee’s, listening to perhaps the most extraordinary collection of speakers, I have ever come across, go wood chopping, eating and drinking together.

    It was intense, it was different and it was inspiring.

    Thank you Johnnie for picking this up and would love to see you soon.

    All good things

    Alan “;+)


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