Innovation, disruption, control etc

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

This is a more than averagely rambling post but when I read Alan Moore’s thoughts about about innovation it fired off a few too many synapses for a really coherent response.

Author Alan Bennett, once wrote that ordinary people can be instruments of the sublime when a situation arises which they must confront and engage with.

Bob Geldof made a similar point at a NESTA bash a few months back, where he said innovation happens naturally in response to strong need, linking Ireland’s dire poverty to its subsequent reputation for innovation.

This is a hobbyhorse for me as I think so many innovation processes are simply toxic to creating conditions in which people feel moved to acknowledge real needs. Bureaucracies flourish by subordinating spontaneous human responses and awareness to standardised systems. Organisational hierarchy means we’re going to be guarding our status before we share anything resembling our vulnerability.

And for me, the very phrase “innovation process” verges on oxymoronic; innovation goes with disruption and disruption is what processes (typically) endeavour to eliminate.

On top of this, as Alan argues, once an idea has been generated in response to need, it’s quite likely to take on a life of it’s own. It’s not linear. So the Tour de France was invented by L’Equipe to maintain sales but went on to become something altogether bigger. Money bonds in Italy were devised to support internecine wars but evolved into a banking system. And there’s an extended story debuking the somewhat preposterous idea that Westminster is the “mother of parliaments”. In an earlier post I cited how the initiator of disruption is often not the main beneficiary.

All of which further challenges people’s claims to be able to manage innovation. Yet claims to be the transformative agent are rife – even among folks who’ve been on the whole Web 2.0 bandwagon for a long time, who talk about radical change and then seem to imply that they know how to organise the whole thing for their big name clients.

Al is writing in the context of a discussion with Euan about coercion:

There are no conscripts in the networked society, only volunteers, said Euan quoting Drucker, and he additionally observed that coercion is a very poor way to inspire people to deliver their very best work inside organisations.

I like to talk about “coalitions of the willing” as a way of thinking about how to get things done in a networked world.

How to relate to people without coercion is certainly a question to live in rather than answer. I do a lot of work with Open Space which heads in that direction and gets to some interesting places. One of its challenges is that quite often, when conventional structures for doing stuff are weakened, we’re faced with slightly scary realisation that we may not actually know what we really want to do. Some practitioners call it “freedom shock”, and one way to deal with it is to demand structure so we don’t have to sit with the awful ambiguity.

(A client who was going to run his own Open Space was chatting with me about how to do it and we got on to the subject of lunch. Specifically, whether it should be inside or outside. He wondered if he should set a guideline “so things don’t descend into chaos”. I teased him that if he really thought people having different ideas of where to eat their lunch was chaos, he needed to get out more.)

My own view is that we can do without far more of our organisational rituals than we think without genuine chaos descending, because there are loads of unconscious signals and markers by which human beings manage to share space. We’re usually too busy thinking, planning and organising to notice, but in moments of silence and peace I think we can sense something holding us together way more exciting and energetic than any organisational diagram.

One way of thinking about this appears recently in Dave Snowden’s blog. He writes about drivers and modulators. If we let go of the idea of being drivers or needing to drive, we may come to see what we may all be modulators, who have influence but not control, who are connected to the system and not outside it.

I emphasised the not being outside as I think the sense of being outside the system is connected an awful lot of misery we impose on ourselves or others. Misery for us, if it means we feel we don’t belong and are powerless: we’re under this system. Misery for others, if we think we understand the system and are therefore able and entitled to control it: We’re above this, you see.

(I often think when someone draws a diagram to explain a human system they inevitably, if unintentionally, place themselves outside it and probably above it.)

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