28 January 2011

Thoughts on Innovation

This is the rough draft of a paper on innovation that my friend Linda and I are pretending to write. We feel that the direction is sufficiently indicated to receive our expected rejection based on an abstract of this. I have considered including Tarot or I Ching references just to insure this result, but Linda assures me that such radical action is not necessary and that we will already freak out the readers.
"Your proposal is innovative. Unfortunately, we will not be able to use it because we have never tried something like that before." - Cartoon by A. Bacall

My early forays into consulting were mostly in the area of innovation and I helped create 'innovation' centers and such things at places like BMW. The pharma case obliquely referenced is my own experience. The Toyota dilemma referenced is fairly well known and socialized. Apologies for the roughness of the text. I have not included the referenced model images, but you can simply google those references and get pages and pages of model images... you know... in your free time. "Oh look! It's a systems thinking iceberg model. Shhh... let's watch it and see what it does." I find this is much cheaper than going to the movies. We will likely create a model with a kind of hierarchy of capability building and practice... apparently for our own amusement since this is unlikely to interest any of our intended audiences, I am told. If you are interested in how this develops please let us know.

On the use of pattern interruption and self observation in human systems innovation.

This paper is about a basic disposition for innovation, rather than concerning itself with 'this or that' innovation. We are considering the differences between mechanistic, prescriptive approaches and emergent, intentional approaches to the question of innovation. The basic implication is that innovation, in this emergent, intentional sense, is founded upon an identity shift in the innovators themselves, individually and collectively. This means the innovator experiences a shift in their primary 'way of being' with respect to some condition or system in which they are participating. This shift in 'way of being; provides the basis for a innovative thought and action. In the absence of this, much innovation is more a sort of adaptation where the transformative qualities are limited by the circumstances to which we are adapting. Such adaptation is necessary and useful. It is our aim to begin to distinguish between such associative activities and more generative activities. It is important to us in this to recognize that the popularized distinction between invention and innovation is a useful one; where invention is the discovery of some particular model, idea, apparatus, etc. and innovation is the socialization of that in the context of some practical service or market. This implies that in addition to the fundamental shift necessary in the innovator that all innovation is also a collaborative act.

The fundamental issue we are wanting to call forth has to do with the dynamic relationship between the forces of conservation and the forces of innovation within a human system, such as the academic institution. This is not a political distinction as such. The structures of conservation are asking the question 'what should we conserve?' Institutional forces of innovation are mutative and transformational. To the extent we become self identified with the formal expression of such forces, and so politicized, conservation and mutation seem in direct conflict. The case within a human system is quite different. These forces have an interdependent and dynamic relationship, which itself is based on deeper structures of the human system and the systems of which it is a part.

If we interpret the human system, of education for instance, as if it were mechanistic, our efforts at change, innovation and transformation become mechanistic themselves. The positive benefit of this is that the results are seemingly predictable. We will have a 'recipe' for innovation. Such predictable results though, are themselves most suited for the preservation of the status quo, i.e. conservation. Such an approach can lead to innovation within some defined process for the sake of efficiency or the alteration of other linear variables within some bounded process. This can be useful for optimizing the efficiency of a process or some aspect of a system understood as mechanistic, but of course suffers from various diminishing returns over time. Such mechanistic approaches also tend to have many unintended and even negative consequences for the human beings in such a system, when generalized over time.

Often there is a confusion between 'problem solving' and innovation. Typically the phenomena arising and understood as 'problems' within the action of a human system are produced by that system functioning perfectly. Not only the phenomena categorized as problematic, but also the ability to perceive such phenomena are themselves a function of the deep structures, assumptions, and lived metaphors of the enacted human system. Over time these structures become procedural, habitual, legal and even moral. Without a thorough understanding of this web of habit and deep structure innovation is more or less impossible, or at least severely limited.

The operational question then becomes; How do we work with ourselves, individually and collectively, to understand and make choices about these structures and the context for possible innovation? How do we even come to see such structures? For the most part what we see is symptomatic. We typically interact with these symptoms at a superficial level where our innovation and learning are limited to a direct and immediate relationship between action, or process and event.

Considering innovation across this spectrum yields three distinctive domains of innovation, each with its own practices and process. These can be delineated elsewhere. For the sake of this paper we would like to explore the third domain.

  • Problem Solving - The first domain is innovation within the bounds of a specified process or set of process for the sake of problem solving and efficiency gains.
  • Process Improvement - The second is innovation arising from an examination of that process of problem solving itself. This can yield not only an improvement to such first order process and creative solution, but also the innovation of new process.
  • Transformation - The third domain is transformational by nature and requires or inspires a fundamental identity shift in the both the system and the innovators. In this third domain the deep structures and patterns of thought, habit, and way of being are addressed. This is both the domain of the innovation and creates a context for profound innovation in the other two domains.
There are many socialized, popularized, and even commoditized approaches to the first two domains. These areas are well known and explored and can even be codified. Typically, in these domains we limit our understanding of what is happening in order to reduce complexity and eliminate ambiguity. This limiting activity is itself often an unconscious habit, individually and collectively in the system. As a result many of the processes and 'recipes' for innovation in these domains are not suitable for addressing moving, multi-variable, highly complex questions and problems that do not seem to readily admit of a 'knowable' answer. Clearly such complex situations is the area where innovation is most needed. However, working in this third domain is challenging in a variety of ways. It is often counter intuitive since the area of inquiry is initially the habits and patterns that create our ability to function. Moreover, the real inquiry is into the conditions that give rise to these habits and patterns which are themselves often the source of what we experience as problems. What is implied in this statement is that there is a typically unexamined, systemic relationship between the source of our functionality and the phenomena we experience as problems. Because working in this domain requires first recognizing these patterns and habits of functionality and working with them, we will often experience a crisis or series of crises individually and within the human system as a whole. This means that such innovation is almost always politicized. These crises arise as conflict within the self and system. The conflict itself is one of the primary forms of materially working with innovation in this transformational domain. The conflict itself is the means by which the otherwise invisible or unexamined habits and patterns become visible and the system can become aware of them. This can only occur if we do not seek to suppress the conflict as it arises, but understand that moment as a moment of reflection and learning. As such patterns become visible it is important to recognize that the enacted patterns and habits, which are themselves the source of the problematized phenomena, are historically grounded in a positive intent. It is this disposition, actively entertained, which allows us to begin to make choices about these deep structures. In the politicized conflict of which structure is right and which is wrong, therefore who is right and who is wrong, we entirely miss the opportunity for profound transformation and innovation. There are a variety of structurally analogous models that are well researched to understand this approach to innovation. (Images)
  • Systems thinking iceberg model
  • Triple loop learning
  • Action Research
All of these models have in common that they portray a recursive, layered understanding of events and how we understand our role with respect to events and our own actions. We will look at the basic structure of these types of models as a way of understanding innovation and the challenges involved with innovation in education and academic institutions. We will describe the nature of practice in each of the three domains: Problem Solving; Process Improvement; and Transformation. In general problem solving does not involve either contextual or process alteration with regard to our way of relating to circumstances. Typically this look like solving some problem by doing more of what we are already doing, with perhaps additional resources, speed or scale. Process improvement requires an aggregated view of events over time, such that trends and patterns are revealed. This typically results in an improvement to existing process, rather than the innovation of new processes. Transformational work requires a contextual shift in the way we are viewing the problem, associated process and ourselves. Without an active component of self observation, individually and collectively, it is impossible to notice and work with the gaps between our espoused model (or habit) of how things are working and our lived model. The cyclic testing of model improvement also enables process innovation and more effective problem solving. True innovation occurs when new models altogether are created and carried through to practice in such a way that they can be socialized. Without some form of collaborative practice and socialization process these new models and theories are simply abstract and conceptual. It is necessary to validate such contextual shifts, not with respect to some third model held as objective and authorized, but rather with respect to the lived reality of the people involved. In essence this looks like an active practice of experimentation and learning within the human system. Such a practice itself typically requires a contextual shift and so is the first area of innovation. This is not typically well understood. The implication is that innovation is cultural phenomena. The possibility of any consistent innovation emerges not from prescriptive or proscriptive practice and technical understanding of any sort, but rather from the deep structure of the human system. In order to have any possibility of a consistent practice of bringing forth innovation it is then necessary first to see and understand the nature of those deep structures and make choices about them that nurture, allow and enable the entire creative process. As we have already noted, such structural practice involves a fair amount of structural tension within the system. If we seek to eliminate this tension, experiencing it as a problem in and of itself, then we also greatly reduce our ability to work consciously with the entire process of innovation. Instead we can consider in ourselves, communities and organizations what capacities and practices allow us to work with these deeper structures.
  • The ability to recognize and constructively hold structural tension where it is arising, even when it occurs as conflict and politicization
  • The ability to consistently observe ourselves in action and reflect on the frames of those actions
  • The willingness to experiment and 'interrupt' patterns of thought, habit, and action in order to learn

These in turn imply disciplines and some conditions. One of the primary reasons we simply fail to be innovative individually and collective is due to the lack of resilience in our lives and lived systems. In the attempt to maximize unexamined values and necessities, (e.g. efficiency, utility, impact, etc.) we tend to remove all resilience from our lives. This then becomes a 'problem' for us which we tend to solve from within the context of those same unexamined values and asserted necessity. We actively create an environment in which we have no free attention or energy. As a result our lives become brittle and mechanistic, rather than pliable and emergent. Often this is simply done out of fear and a confusion between our literal survival and the survival of some metaphorical and extended sense of identity. The inquiry into such asserted value and necessities is itself a practice that begins to free attention in our lives. This often seems as if it creates conflict, when it is much more likely it is simply revealing structural incongruence and existing conflict with which we have been coping. It is in great part this strategic coping that takes up all the space within our lives.

Paradoxically of course this means that we must find some free attention to look into these underlying conditions. How do we do that? Typically we are inspired to take such action in the face of crisis. The difficulty is that in the absence of crisis, which frees attention in the system by forcing the elimination or deletion of complexity, we cease to act in a way that addresses these deep structures of necessity and habit. We may even develop a habit of moving from crisis to crisis as a way of emulating innovation. Often we will celebrate the heroic efforts and creative solutions to address the crisis and this becomes the valued aspect of our culture, reinforcing the need for crisis. Many of the crises themselves are the direct result of a closely held and unexamined assertion of some necessity or model. There are several ways to begin to free attention and energy in our lives from where it may have become fixed and habituated.

It is important to recognize that the root meaning of 'ethics' is habit. Tradition and such socialized habit are the ethical base for the culture, institution or person. This ethical base came into existence for good reasons. The ethical undertaking seeks to preserve something. Beginning to reveal this structure is itself interventionist and has consequences. True innovation has consequences. We must be very clear about that before undertaking any transformational endeavors. We must ask 'what do we want to conserve?," and be very clear about this. We must deeply explore the consequences of successful as well as failed innovation.

In the simplest sense we need to get a feel for what working this way is like and involves. It is insufficient for the nature of such work to merely conceptual. Pattern recognition in our lives becomes critical, but is not sufficient. We must become present to the activity of patterning itself. How are we participating in the recognized patterns? What is our role in the enactment of such patterns? What is our strategic interest in the existence or perpetuation of such patterns. All of this must be looked into within the living experience and action of the innovator. Once we see something about this one of the simplest ways of understanding the deeper structures leading to the pattern is to consciously 'fast' our participation in the pattern and observe what arises. Remember, we are talking about the process of freeing attention and energy in ourselves and within the lived system as a basis for innovation. This is one way of beginning to make apparent the places where attention and energy have become fixed and examine the asserted structure of necessity and utility upon which that is based.

For instance, turn off your phone for a week. What happens? What do you notice? Where did you feel it necessary for you to have a phone and what did you do? What was the basis of that asserted necessity? You can see from this simple, simple example that the work to not only reveal, but actively work with such structure can be very challenging. Imagine an analog within an organization. Perhaps there is a labor management dispute that has been habituated and occurring for some years. What self-interruption, pattern recognition, 'fasting' etc., might be required and what are the challenges involved in that? How would you actually go about it? Or suppose there is a standing and habituated conflict between the "STEM" and Humanities colleges of your university. It has been going on long enough that is now the status quo. The conflict is the normal condition, so thoroughly so that it is not even consciously felt, but rather professionally coped with and actively un-felt. Where do you start?

If we imagine any sort of consistent innovation, as a result of a culture that structurally allows and enables innovation, we must be inquiring into these sorts of questions, not as if they were outside of us, but rather as if we were living and even lived by, such structural conditions. In the absence of such an undertaking of conscious inquiry the results of innovative process are accidental. It is because of this that we see the attempt to solve a lack of innovation through 'best practice' and scale.

Pharmaceutical companies pin there success on long term blockbuster drugs. There are none in the pipeline. The imagine that if they had twice the R&D scale that they would have even more than than twice the chance of discovering their next blockbuster drug, even more quickly. Of course, this can be seen not to have worked out in all the pharma mergers of the 90's. I want my automotive company to compete with Toyota. I do the analytic research and benchmarking to to understand what makes Toyota distinctive. I launch a big initiative to implement all of these best practices and indicators. Again, this has never worked though of course some incremental improvements might be seen in both cases. The results are accidental. There are a variety of reasons for why we continue to do this, even in the face of evidence that it does not work (70% of mergers fail, etc.).

One of the main reasons is that, until we develop as much capacity with real self reflection and the enactment of what we learn from that, activities of inquiry are extremely difficult. This not something inherent to such activities, but rather a lack of capacity that arises from the larger cultural and historical context in which our institutions exist. Furthermore, it is not possible to persuade someone that such reflective activity has any 'practical' purpose or use with respect to their existing models of necessity and utility. Such reflective practice cannot be forced. Such practice is not possible though manipulation. Furthermore, if you are not engaged in such practice yourself, in your own life and lived systems, it is difficult to talk about meaningfully. This means that such immediate self reflection and action are where we need to start in all cases. Most difficult about this is that if we are enacting to solve a problem, it then becomes techné and is more or less self defeating. The first act of reflection and inquiry is into the value of in inquiry and reflection. This will often initially look like encountering the assertions about why reflection and inquiry are not valuable or merely functional. In that moment it is possible to begin to look at the deep structure and frames that make that true and the consequences of frames.

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