The Unbearable Messiness Of Innovation

By Henry Doss

October 14, 2015

When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.  Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

There is a deep irony lurking about in any conversation concerning innovation.  It’s always there, and it’s always influencing what you will do — or not do — with respect to improving innovative thinking and practice.  Without recognizing and understanding that irony, it is next to impossible to ever develop a working model of how innovation works.  It is a problem that is pretty easy to recognize, but much, much more difficult to understand.

The difficult part about the irony of innovation can be thought of as dualism, or conflict or — to wax a bit fancy — dialectic.  Innovation is the constant interplay of order and chaos, of planning and serendipity, of intention and luck.   In a very real sense, the actual state of innovation is anathema to a social or organizational order that is fundamentally built on planning or prediction.  This is why we refer to innovation as “disruptive.”  That is because innovation disrupts; it does not organize.

But, still.   In business and any other domain that requires (or seems to require) planning and prediction, our most earnest desire is to know the future.  As a result, we tend to think and operate— and predict — in a relatively linear manner.  We are accustomed to writing out goals and objectives, plans and calendars.  We express our long-term outcomes as . . . outcomes. And the only way we really know how to do this is linear. No one puts as an outcome for a business plan or a personal objective for the coming year “disrupt.”  Or, “get lucky.”  Or, “change everything.”  We just don’t do this, because we don’t really like messiness in our world, even though, of course, innovation is very, very messy.  Intrinsically so.

Truth be told, nearly everyone is a bit of a technocrat in the way they think, and this innate technocracy leads to an irresistible urge to express the future in empirical (or seemingly empirical) terms.   Our business orientation and thinking demands this.  As a consequence, we resist subtlety, or nuance, or blurry lines, as things that are anathema to control, and quotas and production. So, we both express and understand the future in brute force, measurable ways.  The future becomes empirical, because we can only think and understand it in empirical ways. We accept and act on only the information about the future that fits our need to box it into predictive frameworks, and we reject the subjective, the surprising, the out-of-bounds.  Essentially, we limit ourselves to at best 50.0% of all possible futures, by limiting our thinking to only the empirical.

Of course, this works well enough, most of the time,  in a general way.  It’s comfortable enough, in a general way.  And it serves our general outcomes, more or less OK, in a general way.  Most of the time.  At least this way of thinking and being serves us well enough as long as our goal is the status quo.

But this is not how innovation works.

Herein lies the great, exquisite irony of every conversation you will ever have about innovation, the biggest challenge to the deep, meaningful cultural shift that is necessary for organizations to be innovative.  Innovation — that is the state of a system that is prone to innovative outputs — is notoriously resistant to models and modeling.  Innovation and innovative outputs tend to be emergent factors of system states, not of linear processes.  Unless and until your thinking and behavior take into account the serendipitous and unpredictable factors of innovation, you are likely to be in a very frustrating place, constantly shifting between a required order and a need for . . . not order.

The leap of faith required to be or to cause innovation is large, indeed.  It requires that you live and operate in the linear world, while being present to the irony of thinking about how to best eliminate the order and linearity of your world.  It is as if you have an order something like this:  “We are an organization.  We have goals, and you are responsible for those goals.  And if you miss those goals you are toast.  Oh, by the way, you are also accountable for innovation, and disruption and serendipity and chaos.  Best of luck.”

Innovation, or attempts to make organizations more innovative almost always fail.  That’s not to say that various and sundry tools and projects and ideas don’t cause some incremental improvement, or tease out the odd innovative output here and there.  That does happen.  But change that is deep, and profound, and cultural is rare and that’s because innovation dwells in this ironic, contradictory realm of the unpredictable, which we are constantly attempting to make predictable. In a sense, the innovation system state is a matter of the heart; the outputs of that system state are a matter of the head. And unless and until we merge these two (apparently) contradictory domains; unless and until we are able to dwell comfortably in constant irony; unless and until we can learn to operate the objective and subjective — at the same time — we doom ourselves to at best a mediocre world of incrementalism.

That’s not a place anyone really wants to be.  And it’s not a place where you find innovation. The answer, the way of being that creates the possibility of innovative states, is to begin valuing both sides of the organizational equation equally; the objective and the subjective; the predictable and the random; the measurable and unmeasurable.   It is only when we combine and merge the two opposite worlds, and account for both in our thinking, that we produce truly innovative system states. G. K. Chesterton wrote about our ability to “combine furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.” And this seems like great advice for anyone who wants to contribute to innovation: recognize and embrace the irony of order and chaos, and be comfortable allowing the chaotic into your “plans.”

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