Innovation theatre: empty rituals

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

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

(This is the second in a series of somewhat ranty posts I started the other day. General theme: is a lot of the fuss and bother about innovation more hat than cattle?)

by CoCreatr on flickrAs a child I was made to go to church where my father would lend me his wristwatch. This was so I could watch the second hand go round to keep me occupied, the tired and repeated rituals of the CofE service being so utterly boring to a kid. In the end, I had to lock myself in the bathroom at home in a brave and successful piece of direct action to break this tedious pattern. So as a grown up, one of my favourites sayings is this

God created the truth. The Devil took a look at it and said, “That’s great, I shall organise that and call it… religion.”

In this post, I submit that the Devil has in recent years got excited about creativity, and decided to call in innovation.

As a case in point, take our Government’s new innovation website. I’m sure there is much to commend it, but I turned to the section on thinking differently and found it rather dispiriting. For example, take this advice

the process of rising out of and exploring mental valleys to get more ideas for second-order change relies on three deliberate mental activities: Attention, Escape, and Movement. Thinking differently involves managing these three mental processes.

by mrmanc on flickrI think perhaps the author needs to take some serious mind-expanding drugs. Firstly, to cheer themselves up, and secondly to realise that rising out of mental valleys does not require that much management. Just because you can analyse creativity into three little segments does not mean that’s the essence of it.

Sadly, unaided by good quality drugs, the site goes on to explain how you can do each in turn, which appears to involve someone posing challenges like “Let’s try to generate at least seven ideas for ways to manage patient arrivals in the A&E without a receptionist and a desk”. As I read this I feel my soul being quietly sucked out of me, as the natural process of having ideas is turned into a laborious ritual.


It goes on to recommend the principles of brainstorming.

Brainstorming originated in an advertising agency, specialists in the dressing up of mutton as lamb. Much of their output is the specious glamorisation of the mundane and I fear the same may be true for the magic rules of brainstorms.

The site makes no reference to the arguments that these are not actually very productive. For example the principle of “One conversation at a time – This way all ideas can be heard and built upon.” leads to production blocking – you have a roomful of brains and you try to limit them to only pursuing one thread. Keith Sawyer points to research suggesting you get much better output if you let people work individually rather than in a group. (More here)

I think it’s desperately dull to have a room full of diverse brains and force them all to think in the same way at the same time. Our intelligence is spectacularly non-linear and trying to make it follow a set of rules starts to really interfere with its natural way of working.

A few years ago I blogged Jeff Conklin’s work showing how in the real world, designers working together on a problem follow quite varied paths of thinking and don’t need to be in sync with each other in that very simplistic way.

Post Its instead of Passion

I’m also very sceptical of the reductionism in which having ideas (“ideation”) is separated from whether we actually care about them and want to action them. Time and again I’ve been to meetings in which loads of flip charts are produced with lots of ideas that no one really wants to own. The productivity goal of having lots of ideas has been met, but nobody actually wants to do anything with them.

What I feel we have here is something rich and complex, the process of creativity, rendered merely complicated.

Hat tip Dominic Campbell’s delicious feed

Photo credits: Watch by CoCreatr; Kangaroo snort by mrmanc on flickr

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