Throw the dice and see how far innovation goes
A dialectic approach to innovation by Rikus Grobler of Namibia Innovation Solutions
As an avid promotor of innovation as a business discipline that requires process and structure, this article’s theme might come as a surprise, but believe it or not, my research on innovation has taken me to a view that innovation has traits of both “chance” and “logic”.
Serendipity and innovation
Why call it a “dialectic” approach? The dictionary defines dialectic as: “A method of argument or exposition that systematically weighs contradictory facts or ideas with a view to the resolution of their real or apparent contradictions”. The dialectic process is usually associated with arriving at the truth by stating a thesis, developing a contradictory antithesis, and combining and resolving them into a coherent synthesis.
What I am trying to say with a dialectic approach to innovation, is that although innovation can be improved through proper practices, processes and structures (synthesis), there is still no “formula” for innovation (antithesis) and you have to be open to the reality that innovation can happen through many pathways (synthesis).
Let me put it bluntly! I am not saying innovation is dependent on luck, but we can not control all the variables of innovation, and sometimes innovation happens through chance occurrences that are not within our control and which we can not predict or explain.
King and Anderson refers to this as the ‘‘illusion of manageability of innovation’’ (King & Anderson, 2002). In an attempt to counter the myriad of oversimplified, ‘‘how to manage innovation’’ books appearing on the popular management bookshelves, King and Anderson coined this term to suggest that managing the process of innovation was possible but far more complicated than had been suggested in popular texts. The dialectic perspective supports this view in the sense that practising managers should not fall for simplistic “how to” recipes for managing innovation.
Managers underestimate the fact that different pathways can lead to innovation success, that the effectiveness of innovation management practices depends on context and timing, and that specific practices are likely to have positive and negative consequences for different innovation processes.
In short, innovation processes can be managed, but innovation outcomes can only be influenced by skilful managerial actions throughout the process.
This leads me to the element of chance in innovation. First some evidence. The following products (to name a few), which have had a major influence on life as we know it, was invented “by accident”: Penicillin, Microwave ovens, Viagra, Velcro, Superglue, Corn Flakes, Ink-Jet Printers, Post-It Notes and X-Rays. Innovation thought leaders like to use the word “serendipity” to refer to these chance encounters.
Many innovations are related to chance, a set of fortuitous conditions (happy or unhappy). However, chance is not enough. Knowledge and experience are necessary to transform the set of conditions into innovation. This is the concept behind the word “serendipity”.
Greg Lindsay is researching the role of serendipity in innovation, and he made the following comments: “Serendipity isn’t magic. It isn’t happy accidents. It’s a state of mind and a property of social networks – which means it can be measured, analyzed, and engineered. It’s a bountiful source of good ideas. Study after study has shown how chance collaborations often trump top-down organizations when it comes to research and innovation. The challenge is first recognizing the circumstances of these encounters, then replicating and enhancing them”.
So, what I am advocating here with a dialectic approach to innovation is that organisations must pursue innovation diligently, but don’t “over govern” it, be open to chance occurrences and unexpected connections and outcomes.
The latest research indicates that serendipity can actually be engineered to some extent, and this has become such an interesting topic for me, so next time I want to look more into this matter of “engineering serendipity”.
I conclude with a quote from Jose Manuel Barroso: “What people call serendipity sometimes is just having your eyes open.”
King, N., & Anderson, N. 2002. Managing innovation and change: A critical guide for organizations. London: Thomson Learning.
Lindsay, G. 2013. Engineering Serendipity. New York Times, 5.