Innovation with a capital I

I’ve been enjoying James Gardner’s blog, especially since he moved from his bank to the Department of Work and Pensions. I get the sense that with this move he’s able to speak more clearly about the issues of supporting innovation in organisations.

His latest post Innovation Backlash recounts the catch-22 in which Heads of Innovation find themselves.

The innovators have no clout when their diaries don’t have meetings with senior people. They know they can’t “deliver” (they are scared the backlash will take out their projects) so they only commit to things which are small enough not to get noticed. Of course, being small, they are also not worthy of the attention of senior folk, so no meetings get set up.

I wonder if the problem is partly the expectation that people with innovation in their title must drive innovation. That so easily puts them in a bind where they’re supposed to be powerful but often in practice aren’t. It also may reinforce the notion that innovation is something to be organised from above by specialists, and that it is a grand thing, not the sum of a series of small ones occurring in day-to-day conversation. It becomes Innovation with a capital I.

I fondly remember John Jay’s brilliant essay on obliquity. Here’s the set up:

Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim. The name of this idea? Obliquity.

Jay focuses particularly on profits, and how companies that ruthlessly pursue them end up losing them. I can’t help thinking the same may apply to Innovation.

I somehow think that framing Innovation as an exercise in successfully wielding power is not the right approach. I think networking technologies are allowing a lot of innovations (some you may like, some you may not) to emerge peer-to-peer where the drive is a sense of tribal enthusiasm rather than delivering on a corporate goal. Often the sort of stuff that established hierarchies want to put a stop to… in which case, where does your head of Innovation stand if his aim is get top-level buy-in?

Using this fabulous scene from Casablanca is an exaggerated rhetorical ploy and a shameless oversimplification – but it captures something of what I’m trying to articulate.

1 thought on “Innovation with a capital I

  1. Nick Nichols

    Hi Johnnie

    This seeming paradox is what Stuart Baker and I are working on.

    SB’s view is that our culture is made up of 3 Archetypes – The Pioneers (Innovators) – The Providers (Winners/Search for Profit in our time) – Nurturers (Keep things safe)

    Ideally a healthy system has all three in a balance – not equal by the way more 3Nurturer, 2Provider, 1 Pioneer.

    Our current situation is that the Provider role has captured our culture – as the Nurturer captured the Middle Ages.

    For the Pioneer to get his ideas taken up – he lives in the future and is all about change – he has to persuade the Providers who can see the IMMEDIATE gain. So as Mr Murdoch cannot see how the web can make him money he is opting out.

    Nurturers HATE CHANGE because it is not safe. They are the Meme Immune System. They have to be persuaded that the change is truly beneficial – so for instance the medical profession is very anti the real new – Drugs are OK but alternative therapy cant be safe. They take a long time to shift.

    The focus on any one of these values must end in failure. An all Provider world, means that 1% win the lot and that all the rest plus the planet die.

    An all nurturing world = the Church in the Middle Ages with an Inquisition out to stop change.

    An all Pioneer world = you and me chatting for eternity!

    Cant be solved either by the Nurturers fighting the Providers – the US right now Like a religious war – no compromise or prisoners.

    I think can only be solved by the growth of Facilitated communities where a facilitating structure is built in – Transition Towns, Local Food Networks etc


    And you might want to follow @oblique on Twitter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.