I‘ve been trying to formulate my own approach to what innovation should achieve and how it should work. So these are some of my loose notes and thoughts on the topic.Are.na Collection
The ideas guy is a common phenomenon in corporate settings (or LinkedIn):
Somebody who can come up with endless lists of ideas, some good and some bad, but lacks the skills and / or motivation to execute any of them.1
And yes, he‘s almost always a guy.
His prevalence might be due to the myth of the idea as a key to innovation, a precious resource to be generated and managed. Spoiler alert: ideas are cheap and useless.
Way more valuable are a) a shared understanding of a problem and b) the ability and power(!) to implement a solution.
The ideas guy tends to lack both.
Stewardship is an idea I first came across in Dan Hills “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses” and later “Legible Practices”. It describes a management approach for new projects, especially in the context of innovation work:
Think of stewardship as a form of leadership. One that acknowledges things will change along the way for better or for worse, therefore demanding agility over adherence to a predetermined plan. Many individuals who work in alliances or collaborative endeavors act as stewards almost naturally.
If you are used to continually calibrating the goals of a project with the constraints of your context, you are practicing stewardship. If you maintain a constant state of opportunism and a willingness to pivot when progress on the current path is diminishing, you’re a natural steward.1
Stewardship means working toward a fixed goal (a northstar, a vision) but being flexible in the actual plan of reaching it. And while it may sound similar to agile management it differs in that the decision of employing agile in itself is already part of the plan.
I later adopted a somewhat unwieldy German translation for the term: “Kompromissmanagement” (compromise management). The idea being that in innovation work you not only have to be willing to compromise on parts of the project but also being able to shape those compromises in your favor.
All in all the notion of Stewardship recognizes the need not only for creativity but also diplomacy, especially when working in a complex environment.
There‘s also another implicit recognition hidden in this idea: you may not be able to completely solve a given problem. First defined by Herbert Simon in his studies of organizational decision making, satisficing describes an approach that aims at developing an intervention that‘s “good enough”, not perfect.2
Simply recognizing the need for this approach may in itself be a step towards avoiding solutionists pitfalls.
I found the term myself while researching innovation in the contexts of infrastructure (both technical and social). Infrastructure change is by definition a wicked problem because of the complex systems that itself rely on the stability of often invisible structures, maintenance and work. Though not every problem can be defined as a pure “wicked problems”, they‘re often more wicked then tame, more brownfield than greenfield.
Thus there‘s the need to adapt a form of stewardship to successfully work in these environments:
The role of the infrastructure planner and designer has shifted from prescribing a professional solution to a given situation, a high modernist framing of the professional’s role, to being the expert facilitator of the emergence of a design that satisfices enough stakeholders, and the legacy systems and natural infrastructure components, to be both stable and viable. […] Thus, rather than simply designing a solution to a given problem, the engineer will often find herself needing to satisfice both on problem definition and design solution.3
A critique of the often misleading and over-optimistic language surrounding “innovation” by Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russel1.
Innovation-speak is fundamentally dishonest. While it is often cast in terms of optimism, talking of opportunity and creativity and a boundless future, it is in fact the rhetoric of fear. It plays on our worry that we will be left behind: Our nation will not be able to compete in the global economy; our businesses will be disrupted; our children will fail to find good jobs because they don’t know how to code. Andy Grove, the founder of Intel, made this feeling explicit in the title of his 1996 book Only the Paranoid Survive. Innovation-speak is a dialect of perpetual worry.
Lee Vinsel, Andrew Russel. (September 08, 2020) ‘The Innovation Delusion’. Currency ↩
A minimal viable product (MVP) is a version of a product, project, or concept with just enough features to satisfy early customers. It‘s a way of testing an assumption before committing to building a fully-featured product. The concept was popularized by the author and consultant Eric Ries.
But during my work in the innovation team at the Süddeutsche Zeitung I found the MVP-framework lacking in a couple of ways. As with most concepts out of the startup-to-consultancy-pipeline, it lacks a way of interfacing with the structure of the organization and its dark matter.
As a result, MVPs build by an innovation team are in danger of being created in a vacuum. They might fit the users‘ needs but aren‘t sustainable inside the organization because of lacking resources, knowledge, man-power, or a miss-fit with strategy or business goals. Such teams might end up with a perfectly fine new product, but without a way to sustain it further.
Products and projects need the political will, the people (developers, designers, etc.), the tools, and the technical infrastructure to build and maintain it. Building this infrastructure is often an implicit part of innovation, but for complex organizations, it has to be explicit to be successful.
Which in turn means, that innovation has to work on different levels inside these organizations. It might be more useful to influence the strategy, hiring, or processes to build a solid infrastructure that can then support the new product, then building the product itself.
My suggestion would be something like a minimal supportable product or (MSP). An MVP that is embedded from the start in the organization and can not only be iterated along with the users‘ needs but also the organization‘s capabilities, while also transforming both product and organization.
This is a collection of articles, books and organizations that inspired and informed my work at the innovation team of the Süddeutsche Zeitung and was part of the “Work in Progress” zine.
A sporadically updated list can also be found on are.na.
(Please note, that I am trying to link directly to the publisher‘s or author‘s own website. The books in question are with minor exemptions available at your favorite global e-commerce giant, as well.)
One of the most influential metaphors for my work is Dan Hill‘s „Dark Matter“ from his book „Dark Matter and Trojan Horses“. Dark Matter describes the invisible forces influencing organizations, projects and concepts:
organisational culture, policy environments, market mechanisms, legislation, finance models and other incentives, governance structures, tradition and habits, local culture and national identity, the habitats, situations and events that decisions are produced within.
To work successfully as a in-house innovation team means being able to read and understand this Dark Matter and also having the tools to engage with it.