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The Challenge of Continual Newness

George Siemens

February 3, 2003


Ideas (even outlandish ones) are the bedrock of our future - as individuals, corporations, schools, and even society. Through new ideas (experimentation) we challenge the limiting influence of existing processes and mind sets. The underlying circumstances of yesterday (that led to today's way of doing things)...have changed. We need an environment that fosters the expression of new ideas, a process for capturing and evaluating them, and finally a means of sharing them across an organization.

Innovation in institutions today centers around three concepts:

  1. Potential: New ideas = innovation
  2. Reality: Organizations have a tendency to kill new ideas (thereby limiting their own ability to innovate and adapt to, or create new trends)
  3. Solution: New ideas need an ecology in which to grow (or die) on their own

What is Innovation?

Innovation is part evolution and part adaptation (and occasionally, part revolution).

Innovation is about being new...doing existing things in a new way, or doing something new in response to changes. Innovation is part evolution and part adaptation (and occasionally, part revolution).

A few additional definitions:

  • "True innovation is based on the recognition that a business concept represents a dozen or so design variables, all of which need to be constantly revisited and constantly challenged. A company that is not experimenting with new business concepts is probably living on borrowed time." Innovation as a Deep Capability
  • "Innovation is the conversion of knowledge and ideas into a benefit, which may be for commercial use or for the public good; the benefit may be new or improved products, processes or services. Innovation and technological change are without doubt the main drivers of economic growth at organizational, sector and economy-wide levels." What is Innovation?
  • “The act of discovering the value of ideas” James Barnes

Innovation: Environment and Architecture

Idea sharing requires both environment and architecture. Environment fosters the continual "growth" of new ideas, and architecture ensures ideas are captured and handled for the benefit of the organization.

Environment consists of organizations attitudes towards experimentation, acceptance of failure, unspoken guidelines, tolerance of innovation spikes, support for innovators. It is an ecology that permits the growth and expression of new ideas. Some characteristics:

  • Expose ideas to the elements - let others comment, discuss, debate, etc.
  • Acknowledge new ideas, but without commenting on value (at least not at the start...let the idea prove itself first).
  • Let an idea live/die on it's own merit. Don't accelerate or delay it's acceptance/death.
  • Be indifferent - suspend judgment. What looks like a terrible idea today may have great value tomorrow.
  • Don't control - but give it enough sustenance to develop naturally.
  • Nicholas Negroponte lists three main criteria for fostering innovation: diversity, encourage risk, openness and idea sharing.
  • Time and freedom to experiment.

While the environment of innovation cannot be created (it can only be fostered), the architecture of invocation can be managed. It consists of three aspects:

A good idea is one that has emerged from an idea pool, survived examination, yielded value to individuals/department, and is an evolution, adaptation, or revolution
  1. Resources - availability of forums (meeting rooms, communication tools, technology access) and provision of resources (the raw material of innovation - in higher education it may be time, in manufacturing it may be physical materials).
  2. Process of capture - how are good ideas captured (a good idea is one that has emerged from an idea pool, survived examination, yielded value to individuals/department, and is an evolution, adaptation, or revolution) and shared organization-wide? An established process is needed to move good ideas to an action level.
  3. Reward/Recognition - Rewarding innovation (most often just through acknowledgement and recognition) encourages innovators to continue, and sends a message that experimentation has value.

Where is Innovation Found?

Innovation is generally not found in the mainstream of an organization. Most often, innovation spikes happen on the fringe, the outskirts. Most organizations possess the talents/skills/ideas to meet the challenges they are facing. The solutions to these challenges are not always heard around meeting tables...because they don't arise from the mainstream. The voices speaking solutions to today's problems, and creativity for tomorrow's innovations, are often silenced due to norming behaviour.

Innovation is a mind set that exists with an individual, small groups of people, or in an entire department. Some characteristics of innovative people/groups:

  • Innovators are irritating. They continually push new ideas and new approaches to doing things. Innovators can be taxing to management's desire for processes and control.
  • Constant experimentation. Even processes that appear to be working are challenged
  • Innovators "draw on different canvas". The picture they see is often very different from the rest of the organization sees.
  • Future facing - decisions made today reflect the ambiguity of tomorrow.
  • Sense of urgency.
  • Broad interests - they enjoy smashing together apparently opposing ideas and concepts.
  • High value of learning - usually informal.
  • High energy
  • Sense of optimism
  • Simplicity - complexity is not a mark of innovation. Most often the ideas fall into "why hasn't anyone else thought of this" category.

Through perpetual innovation dynamic organizations remain responsive to the larger trends of society. Most of today's accepted processes/concepts spent years on the "fringe" before becoming mainstream (blogs, for example, have been popular for years among certain crowds, and only recently are gaining momentum in mainstream). Companies need not be broadsided by the "next big thing" if they are capable of capturing the ideas simmering on the outskirts of their own institution.

What Kills Innovation?

Most organizations have strong influences to normalize employee behaviour. The objective often seems to be to limit behaviour/activities to acceptable levels. This creates a behaviour pattern ("the box") that is (usually) an unspoken standard of what is/isn't appropriate for the entire organization. The greatest threat to innovation is the response of an organization. When activities extend beyond the accepted box (an innovation spike), the organization enacts normalizing (can be subtle) through:

  • Cutting funding - to a department or a project.
  • Silencing - the idea or the person.
  • Ignoring - the idea or the person (this is a passive way of silencing).
  • Forcing behaviour back into "the box".
  • Redirecting - taking new ideas and trying to force them into existing frameworks.
  • Evoked set, the concept of limited group of ideas from which we will tend to select. Virginia Postrel uses the example of selecting toothpaste to explain how this works: we select toothpaste based on our learning over time (through advertising, marketing, etc) from a limited set - to the exclusion of others, unless we are pressed to consider other choices. To extend this, evoked set states, essentially, that we limit our acceptance of new ideas that have not yet moved into our "evoked set".
  • Low tolerance for failure. Failure is a part of any endeavor that involves risk. By not tolerating failure, taking risks is discouraged.
  • Too much structure impedes idea creation and sharing. Innovation and organization are often at odds with each other. Ideally, after innovation has run its course (and birthed new processes and products), organization needs to be applied. The very foundation of innovation (experimentation) is inefficient. New ideas (those that survive) need a process for organization-wide adoption. Organization (in itself an norming process) plays the critical role of taking ideas from the fringe and bringing them mainstream.

Innovation, as a means to increasing organizational effectiveness and future viability, is subject to the same threats that face anything new or different. The challenge is to create a structure (architecture) that fosters innovation (environment). As ideas are presented and examined, those that "fit" with needs or trends will be adopted. Sometimes the only bad idea is the one that limits future expressions of ideas. Hearing all the voices is the first task.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.  


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.