Innovation and not-knowing

28/9/2022 ☼ InnovationNot-knowingManagement

This article is part of a project on not-knowing.

Here is a problem: Organizations (businesses, non-profits, governments, NGOs) know that innovation is essential, so they spend a lot of money, effort, and time on innovation management designed to help them innovate faster and better. The problem is that innovation management rarely actually works.

Here is an explanation: The instinctive approach to innovation management only takes very seriously a small slice of what counts as innovation. This narrow view makes us misunderstand what the essence of innovation is. This is why innovation management (which is built on this misunderstanding) rarely works.

Here is a proposition: Looking at innovation much more broadly shows us that there is only one thing that is definitionally true about doing something new, and it’s that it requires being in a space of not-knowing.

Here is a counterintuitive conclusion: Innovation is all about navigating spaces of not-knowing, because those are the only spaces where anything new can emerge. This means that instead of trying to copy what big businesses do to innovate, innovation management should be about designing organizations that can flourish in a state of not-knowing.

This article unpacks these ideas. If you are a management researcher or innovation professional, the ideas here may seem familiar, but the conclusions I draw from them may feel dangerously heterodox. I hope you will keep an open mind despite identity threat.


What it means to take innovation seriously

Let me be clear: Management researchers have talked about broad conceptions of innovation for decades. And people everywhere for millennia have been doing innovation work regardless of what management researchers or management practitioners think. What I am saying is that

  1. Innovation researchers and practitioners don’t take this broader view seriously enough,
  2. This narrow view of innovation leads us to misunderstand what innovation is and what innovation management should be, and thus
  3. Innovation management is much less effective than it could be.

The root of the problem is that organizations and the people in them instinctively think of innovation as new technology products and services created by big businesses or businesses-that-are-trying-to-get-big. In much of management research and in nearly all of management practice, only this narrow slice of innovation and innovation work gets studied, written about, taught in management schools, and emulated.

In other words, we talk about having a broad view of innovation, but organizations (whether businesses, non-profits, governments, or NGOs) only take the big-business-focused slice of it seriously enough to try hard to understand and reproduce it.

Why innovation is big business

Business, and business people, love innovation. Making a smartphone with new-to-market features or adding a new food delivery service to on-demand car hire boosts sales, creates buzz,” and increases stock prices and market capitalizations.

Innovation has this effect because people generally use it as a reason for buying stuff. The new thing does something that was previously impossible, or it does something that was possible before in a better way, or faster, or more cheaply. In other words, the innovation is both new and useful. When something is both new and useful, there’s a good reason for it to exist and for people to buy it.

That a thing must be both new and useful to be an innovation seems obvious, but people — even very intelligent ones responsible for a lot of money — often seem confused by the principle.

Remarkably often, what’s claimed as innovation” only enables something which was previously impossible but inherently silly. An internet-connected subscription-based juice machine/service is new but, as Juicero and its investors found out, not useful enough for people to want to pay for it.1

Fortunately less often, what’s claimed as innovation” is simply fake or fraudulent. A comprehensive, accurate, inexpensive way to do blood tests from a tiny amount of blood doesn’t currently exist, even if Theranos falsely claimed to its partners, investors, and the public that it had developed the technology to do so.2

The prospect of something new seems to stimulate consumption even when it isn’t useful. And aggressive marketing and advertising often fools the consumer into buying things which are new but not useful. So it seems obvious to business people that it must be good for business when the new thing is also useful, i.e., when it is a real innovation.

Business loves things which are self-evidently good for business, so business makes a big show of paying close attention to doing innovation work. A business usually signals its innovation focus by appointing a Chief Innovation Officer who is paid a lot to create an innovation organization that is tasked with coming up with real product or service innovations — truly new and useful things that the company can sell — that will have deep impact on the balance sheet.

Innovation of this type is analogous to the so-called Big Five charismatic megafauna of the Serengeti, the lions, elephants, rhinoceros, giraffes, and buffalo which tourists dream of seeing on safari. Big Business Innovations are the charismatic megafauna of innovation.

Innovation is not just elephants and lions

Only focusing on Big Business Innovations is like only focusing on elephants and lions when thinking about the ecosystem of the Serengeti. If you’re a tourist visiting for a couple of days, it’s probably okay to focus only on the elephants and lions. A tourist may not even need to be aware of the more nuanced picture.

The more nuanced picture includes the trees, grasses, small animals, insects, bacteria, fungi, and people which are also part of the complex Serengeti ecosystem. Collectively, they make up a bigger — much bigger — proportion of the ecosystem’s biomass and interactions. They matter practically, not just conceptually or philosophically.

If your job is to manage the ecosystem, you have no option but to keep the bigger picture in view and take it seriously. If you want to (for example) slow the onslaught of desertification, or ensure that the elephants have enough trees to eat so they don’t starve, you must know about and account for both the charismatic megafauna and the less charismatic (even partially hidden) flora and fauna in the ecosystem. Managing something properly is impossible without understanding it properly, and understanding something properly is impossible when focusing only on a narrow slice of it.

This is why organizations and the people who run them should take much more seriously the idea that innovation goes way beyond big business and coming up with new products and services.

Innovation is also not-business and not-big

Any person or organization can come up with something new and useful. Small businesses, individual entrepreneurs, governments, government agencies, NGOs, not-for-profits, community groups, and informal groups can all innovate. Anything new and useful they come up with is an innovation. It doesn’t have to be a new product or service. It can be a new business model, a new law, a new way of interacting with others.3

Another kind of innovation is the new and useful thing which is overlooked because it is small or non-technological. These get ignored partly because they are often created by also-overlooked types of innovators, such as an informal group, or a low-ranked worker, or an artist, or a person who isn’t STEM-trained.

Anything that is both new and useful is innovation, no matter who comes up with it and whether it is (or looks) big. This means that, anyone (and any type of organization) can innovate.

Innovation is any useful thing which is new in context

Another frequent misunderstanding is the idea that something must be universally new to be a real innovation. By universally new,” I mean something like this is the first time, anywhere, at any time, that this has ever been seen.”

This is a silly way to restrict what counts as innovation because everything builds in some way, no matter how tiny, on something that came before it.

The world’s first functional cellular mobile phone network was a manually switched network in Finland called Autoradiopuhelin or ARP (originally designed for carphones), launched in 1971. It was a cellular network in that it was built up of cells (units each served by a radiotower). Inside each cell a carphone could make and receive calls served by the network. It was manually switched in the sense that a carphone was switched from one cell to another by a person at a switchboard. ARP was not-new in that it was built on ideas underlying previous, non-cellular networks for mobile telephony like the radiotelephone which had been introduced many decades earlier. Nonetheless, ARP was universally new in that it was the first network whose structure was cellular, allowing easier scaling of the number of network users.

The first so-called modern mobile phone network was launched in 1979 by NTT covering metropolitan Tokyo with an automatically switched cellular mobile network. NTTs cellular network was both something universally new (a network which could automatically switch calls from cell to cell) and something which was only new in Tokyo (a network of cells providing mobile telephone service, because ARP was launched in 1971). The automatic switching of calls from one cell to another was the technology innovation which allowed the number of users on the network to scale even more than ARPs cellular innovation had previously.10

These two linked examples make it clear that

  1. Even if the innovation in Place A is not-new in Place B, it can still be new and useful in Place A.
  2. Even innovation built on previous work requires doing something new.

Innovations need only to be new in context to be considered innovations, and most innovations are only new in context. But they’re useful nonetheless.

It makes no sense to copy what others do to innovate

If innovation could be anything (product, service, business model, art practice, way of thinking, etc) done by anyone (person, informal group, NGO, government agency, business, etc) as long as it is useful and new in context, then innovation can be found all over the place. And it actually is.

What this means is that to learn how to innovate, we don’t need to limit ourselves to looking at the specific things that supposedly innovative big businesses (like Apple or Google) do to come up with new products and services and trying to imitate them.

In fact, we shouldn’t be doing that at all. This is for two reasons.

First: How an Apple or a Google designs itself to be good at making new products and services is naturally specific to how Apple and Google work, the market they are in, the specific resources they have (money, patents, people, partnerships), and their organizational history.

Copying one big business’s organization chart (or brainstorming process, or amount of investment in R&D, or innovation team composition, or whatever) is vanishingly unlikely to work as intended unless the big business doing the copying is essentially identical to the big business being copied. This is quite literally never the case, yet this kind of imitative approach is what management best practice (and management research) always recommends.

Second, and more important: Most innovation happens entirely outside of the world of big business. Governments, NGOs, artists, informal groups or even small businesses or individual entrepreneurs are not like big businesses at all. It makes no sense for anyone who is not a big business to try and learn how to innovate by copying what big business does. This should be self-evident, yet non-big-businesses seem unable to resist big business innovation best practices.”

The essence, not the form

If innovation is anything that is useful and new in context, it can be found everywhere and can be done by anyone. Yet nearly all of how we think about innovation and how to do it better comes from looking at what big business does and trying to copy those actions — even when it makes no sense to do that.

This way of thinking about innovation is analogous to not seeing the Serengeti because we’re so focused on watching what the lions and elephants are doing. This narrow view leads us to fundamentally misunderstand what the Serengeti is and how it actually works.

The same is true about innovation and the narrow, big-business-dominated frame through which we try to understand it. The narrow view leads to a misunderstanding of innovation which is hard to even see because the narrow view dominates how we think and act. Because innovation could be ubiquitous and is all over the place, we should be changing the frame to try and see what’s true about innovation wherever it happens, not just when it happens in big businesses.

What I am saying here is both simple and complex (without being simplistic nor complicated). We should not mistake the biggest trees in the forest for the forest itself. We should focus not on the form innovation takes in just one of the many places it can be found, but on the essence of innovation.

The essence of innovation is not-knowing

Only one thing is definitionally true of doing anything new, and it’s that it can only be produced by not-knowing in some way.

Will a free national health service bankrupt society? Will the online passport service result in huge numbers of fake passports? Will Vantablack really be as light-absorbing when it is applied to the sculpture as in the imagination? Will readers want to buy science fiction that highlights the disturbing things about society that they usually take for granted?

There’s no free pass even for those building something new in context that is not-new somewhere else.

Will there be enough mobile phone users to justify the cost of building a cellular mobile network? Will automatic switching be reliable enough to attract customers used to manual switching?

More precisely, one or more of the following forms of not-knowing will be true about the new thing:

  1. You don’t know for sure what it will be.
  2. You don’t know for sure how to make it.
  3. You don’t know for sure how it will work.
  4. You don’t know for sure how the world will respond to it.
  5. You don’t know for sure whether you value it.

Innovation requires not-knowing because not-knowing creates room for new things to emerge.

For organizations, innovation properly means introducing useful products, services, business models, or ways of thinking that are either new categories or new to existing categories.11 Innovation work must either explore the spaces of not-knowing that lie inside and outside existing categories.

If the essence of innovation is not-knowing, then innovation management should not be about copying the form of what big businesses do to innovate. Instead, it should be about designing organizations that can flourish in a state of not-knowing: hiring and training people who are comfortable with uncertainty, and about designing and building organizations that recognize and flourish in uncertainty.

(Each of these is a dense tangle that I’ll unravel in articles to come.)

This article is part of a project on not-knowing.

🙏 to Evan Cater, Cedric Chin, Brian Dell, Tom Critchlow, Simon F., Paul Henninger, and David MacIver, for their comments. I am entirely responsible for any remaining poor thinking.

  1. Juicero raised nearly US$120mm in funding from major VCs but closed down in September 2017.↩︎

  2. Theranos raised over US$700mm from a wide range of investors by claiming to have developed technology that would let it do a wide range of analyses from the amount of blood that could be drawn with just a tiny pinprick. This claim was found to be fraudulent in January 2022.↩︎

  3. This is not a new insight, yet we continue to not take seriously the idea that innovation can, in principle, be done by anyone or any organization.↩︎

  4. The NHS resulted from political and economic developments in the UK after World War 2.↩︎

  5. Singapore made online passport applications possible in 2002 by an amendment to the Passports Act.↩︎

  6. Grameen Bank was formed in 1983 based on action research on microloans by Mohammed Yunus beginning in 1976.↩︎

  7. This essay captures some of the reasons why the fictional universe of the Ekumen allowed le Guin to investigate aspect of human culture and social interactions in ways that were previously impossible (and also impossible using more realistic” forms of fiction).↩︎

  8. Though Kapoor purchased the exclusive license for fine art uses of Vantablack in 2016, his first works using the pigment were only shown in 2022, during the Venice Biennale. To be clear: Vantablack is a materials technology innovation, but Kapoor’s use of Vantablack to achieve an art objective is an innovation in art.↩︎

  9. Kamozawa and Talbot are the chefs behind Ideas in Food, while Arnold led innovation at the French Culinary Institute in New York at the time. Kamozawa and Talbot documented their experiments with using agar to clarify liquids in a blogpost which Arnold read. Arnold then built on their findings and documented in blogposts his own experiments with agar clarification and the resulting high-efficiency, high-efficacy technique.↩︎

  10. NTTs automatically switched network, originally launched in metropolitan Tokyo, is the first 1G cellular mobile network. It is not always acknowledged as such. Mobile telephony via non-cellular networks had been possible since the 1920 with radiotelephones. Researchers at Bell Labs conceived of a cellular structure for wireless telecommunication networks in the 1940s, which may be why they are usually inaccurately cited as the originators of mobile telephony.↩︎

  11. Special 🙏to reviewer Brian Dell for the construct of the category unknown.↩︎