How possible is it to plan to be innovative?

I was invited to give a key note speech at the Participatory Innovation Conference (PINC 2011) at the University of Southern Denmark in Sønderborg. A variety of academics, business people, representatives of local and national government attended and participated in two and half days of interesting discussion in the five thematic tracks in the conference. There were a large number of papers presented which seemed to me to set out two broad narratives about innovation, which are interconnected, one could even say interdependent, but through a relationship of negation. One might argue that it would be impossible to understand innovation without taking both views into account, but at the same time it would be important to recognise how one narrative threatens to completely extinguish the other.

Narrative one was the dominant as well as the majority narrative in the conference, which I will term the management narrative. Narrative two, which arose as much in people’s reflections on their papers or in their less formal reflections on how difficult it was to undertake participatory innovation in their organisation or context I will term the complexity narrative. Both bring with them their own perspectives on the world, and I will argue, their own methods. Both arise as a consequence of trying to undertake innovative projects in organisations and I would argue that both are in paradoxical tension.

For the sake of discussion the two narratives are over-drawn, but I do so in order to draw attention to the tensions that I perceive in thinking and writing about how change comes about in organisations and how much we can plan it, tensions which are not always evident from academic papers or text books on the subject.

Narrative 1, the management narrative, portrays a world of conscious choosers. So in order to get hold of this difficult concept, ‘innovation’, we have to define it explicitly and describe concrete ways of achieving it. We have to make it a target, we have to have a strategy, perhaps an innovation champion. We have to have plans and we can design solutions to innovation problems. This narrative privileges the idea of rational, conscious choosing managers who are designing innovation, and in order to do so they require models which tend to be fixed, explicit and abstract. Narrative 1 presupposes that we have to invent explicitly, to ‘be original’, to put something in place which has never been there before. Doing so involves an effort of will, of driving the change that we want to see forwards.

The management narrative acknowledges that there are tensions in this process, which one presenter referred to as dualisms. Speed of product development has to be traded off against inclusion of customers; internal business coherence has to be balanced against external input. The managerial innovator strives for balance.

But innovation arises as an explicit function of management. Sometimes this narrative turns into a heroic tale of managerial achievement fuelled by anxiety and evangelism. It is a moral tale which was retold by one of the other keynote presenters, Peter Hessedahl. So the story goes something like this: we live in exceptional times, there’s so much change going on at a faster and faster pace. If companies, governments, health services don’t keep up they will be left behind. There is an imperative to innovate now (or be taken over by China, India or Brazil). This requires a revolution in practice and in thinking – it needs a change in ‘mind set’. We have to change our ‘mental models’ just as we need to produce new models of working.

I notice a combination of optimism about the ability to design innovation processes but a degree of pessimism about people working in organisations who are portrayed as being against change. This is why it needs the urgency of evangelism and moral imperative, unless people do not grasp or react sufficiently quickly to the need for change.

Narrative 2, which I am terming the complexity narrative, retreats from the heroic narrative to the mundane and understands innovation to be emerging constantly from the politics of everyday life. Since we are highly social, interdependent beings we cannot help but participate with each other in doing whatever we are doing since we are obliged to co-operate and compete to try and achieve things together. In doing whatever we are doing we are constrained and enabled by power relationships, in the words of the sociologist Norbert Elias, by our power power chances. It is the negotiation and exploration of these power differences, the changing figurations of power, that lead to the possibility of new things emerging.

This point of view understands organisations paradoxically as sites of stability and change at the same time with the potential for the patterning of interaction between people to be endlessly repeated, subtly changed or or perhaps radically changed. In organisations small differences, variations, subversive activity, deceit, greed, good intentions all emerge on a daily basis between individuals absorbed in the game of organisational life. Both new and predictable things are emerging constantly in our interactions with each other, many of which we do not recognise and can only make sense of retrospectively, and this retrospecive sense-making may sometimes be provoked by a crisis, such as the imperative need to consider radical change.

From the perspective of narrative 2, the complexity narrative, what we term an ‘innovation’ reflects an ideological choice. ‘Innovations’ are happening all the time, but which ones get recognised as innovations and are pursued and followed reflects power relations and who decides what is innovative and what is not. According to narrative 2, innovation cannot be fixed in models or abstractions. We have some choices about what we pay attention to in organisations, and how we do this says as much about us as it does about the object of our attention, about whether it is ‘innovative’ or not. So in the way that we pursue the elusive concept of innovation we have to constantly explore with each other what it is we think we mean and are finding out together: for example, data, whatever we might mean by that, do not speak for themselves but have to be interpreted.

To sum up these two understandings of innovation: narrative 1, the overwhelmingly dominant tendency in the conference, understands innovation to arise from conscious acts of managerial creation, which may involve recombining what already exists to produce novelty. This narrative is largely optimistic, future-oriented, and predicated on will. It is a deliberate act of prediction and control combining different groups, making things inclusive, getting the whole system in the room, planning, developing tools and techniques, and perhaps even compliance techniques so that employees are scrutinised to see that they are ‘being innovative’. There are some very familiar themes drawn from other aspects of management, such as strategy development, which involves the idea of generating a vision, of getting people to align and agree. There is a linear understanding of time stretching from the here an now into a semi-predictable future. Innovation arises from the alignment of people’s plans and intentions.

Narrative two more readily understands innovation as originality, by which I mean going back to the origin. This is what I understand John Dewey to be saying when he talks of intensifying experience from within experience itself, and is illustrated by the well-known stanza from the Four Quartets by TS Eliot:

‘We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.’


According to this narrative innovation, change, arises as a consequence of the fluctuating power relationships between people engaged in the ongoing, active participation in the exploration of difference and diversity in organisations or communities. Rather than developing models, this narrative privileges paying attention to what is emerging in the patterning of our interaction – one might describe it as an active passivity. It brings with it an iterative understanding of time where we reinterpret the past in the present in the expectation of the future. One might argue that this narrative tends towards the pessimistic, or perhaps, the realistic appraisal of the traps, difficulties and hardships that there are likely to be along the way.

Both of these narratives of innovation arose in the conference, but the first, heroic narrative tended to drive out the second. One might understand them as inter-dependent narratives, constantly negating each other, but in the discourse on participatory innovation the first, in my experience, definitely crowded out the second.



7 thoughts on “How possible is it to plan to be innovative?

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  2. rndsync

    Interesting that there were the only positions taken were these two extremes. The complexity narrative definitely seems to be closer to the place where true innovation takes place. However, to sustain this innovation and make it result in something useful, you need a nurturing environment and also an environment which brings the innovation to production. So it would seem that someone at the conference would recognize the reality is in combining the two narratives not either extreme.
    Curious if there was any point of view that was more moderate.

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      Sometimes both polarities were present in the same presentation.So when people presented their papers they stuck to their story of manager-designed change, until they reflected on what they were saying to admit that it wasn’t quite as simple as they are presenting. I think the official discourse privileges the former rather than the latter.

      1. rndsync

        That’s interesting how selfish and short term interests end up dominating such that global good is compromised. By their hesitation to admit that the other side’s point of view is also valid, the presenters seem to have avoided the middle ground. Funny that one of the foundations of innovation is being open to being challenged on one’s assumptions.

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  4. Villads Keiding

    The two narratives clearly describe the contradictions between at the one hand organizations executing plans to achieve business goals and at the other hand people individually and collaboratively responding to challenges, exploring opportunities and trying to do things better in the social interaction in the daily (work)life. Very familiar!

    When you describe the Management Narrative, you refer to the question of getting people to “align and agree on a vision”.

    I wonder if the concept of “a vision” has the potential to unite the two narratives. Because, isn’t the whole innovation-thing about visions? Or put in another way about envisioning something to be, stating it, putting initial ideas in circulation, involving followers and co-creators, building alliances in the power-system, make it grow and at some point push it forward by strict planning and resources?

    I guess any new technology, any new way of organizing society, any business model or product as a starting point has been questions, thoughts or ideas in one mind (or more at the same time), asking loud “what if…?”

    From the management perspective the concept of “a vision” is not only about aligning and getting people to agree. It’s like well about turning people on, infect them with an idea, challenge them with a question, offering a way things might make sense by presenting a draft statement of what could be. If a vision makes sense, it will simply invite people to participate in bringing it into real life.

    From the perspective of the complexity narrative, “a vision” is about people having insights, see opportunities and having ideas.

    But what if the management vision is an open framework, where people are encouraged to co-create on the draft by bringing in the whole complexity of ideas fostered in the social interaction?

    It only takes the courage of accepting not to know in what way the vision will come true.

  5. Pingback: The predictable unpredictability of social life « Reflexivepractice

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