Lessons from Innovation (the book)

Innovation book coverPassing through the MIT book store on my way to visit the Center for Collective Intelligence I stumbled across a copy of Richard Lester and Michael Piore's book "Innovation: The Missing Dimension." It was a happy accident as the book makes a few points that will help frame development of the Innovation Exchange. Based, in large part, on a series of case studies of new product development in cellular telephones, medical devices, and fashionable blue jeans, the authors explored how innovation happens in corporate ecosystems.

A few conclusions that most intrigued me (emphasis below is mine):

  • There are two kinds of "innovation" the authors call analysis and interpretation. Analysis is essentially problem-solving and is what you do when "alternative outcomes are well understood and can be clearly defined and distinguished." Interpretation, on the other hand, leads to a new insight, new product, or new approach, where there wasn't necessarily an understood problem or gap. They suggest that "the analytical perspective dominates the scholarly literature on innovation, competitiveness, and economics, particularly in business and engineering schools."
  • Lester and Piore argue that "ambiguity is the critical resource out of which new ideas emerge" and conclude "that the way in which problems come to be identified and clarified to the point where a solution can be developed is through a process of conversation among people and organizations with different backgrounds and perspectives." They equate the role of manager of an innovative process to "hostess at a cocktail party" (mind you, these are MIT professors of "nuclear science and engineering" and "economics and management" respectively).
  • Finally, they point out that these cocktail parties–what they also call "interpretive spaces"–"do not grow up naturally in market economies. They must be created; and once created, they must be cultivated, renewed, and enriched."

What do these insights mean for the Innovation Exchange?

One issue they raise is whether we focus on both types of innovation; on analysis and interpretation. We see both types in our work. Gwen describes a number of analytic challenges in her recent post "Less Glitter, More Green" while the exciting examples from Earth: The Sequel tend towards the interpretation end of the spectrum. Given the severity of the environmental problems facing the globe, I doubt that focusing on analysis alone will be sufficient and suspect we need to encourage interpretation as well.

I'm pretty comfortable with, even excited by, the idea of innovation resulting from "conversation" and leveraging social media to join in. Of course, this isn't a new meme online. It dates back, at least, to the dark ages of  1999 and the Cluetrain Manifesto. Levine strongly invoked the conversation metaphor explaining that "the Internet is a conversation carried on in a variety of formats–Web pages, e-mail, discussion groups, mailing lists–that bring new possibilities to human relations." Locke even used the cocktail party image, writing "Stuff, as the digital world has taught us, isn't always stuff. And coordinating how it gets distributed is more like a cocktail party than a strategy session."

At the Innovation Exchange, we've started to develop our voice and join the conversation though this blog, our activity on twitter, reaching out on social media platforms, and through various networking venues online and off.

But does this really address the gap that Lester and Piore describe?  They write:

The dominant approach to innovation seeks to strengthen and extend the domain of market competition. But the interpretive perspective points in the opposite direction, toward the creation of sheltered spaces that can sustain public conversation among a diversity of economic actors who would be unable to interact in this way on their own.

Could and should EDF engage in the development of these non-market, sheltered spaces? It seems like this falls into the realm of "finding the ways that work" but what would it mean practically and what would EDF's role be? Anyone have examples or suggestions?


  • Dunno about analysis vs interpretation, or sheltered spaces, but to the point about conversation, I found this on one of your case-study pages:

    "In 2001, Aveda began to use MERGE and in the first two years boosted recycled content in its polyethylene bottles from 45% to 80%, eliminating the use of about 150 tons of virgin polyethylene a year; this resulted in Aveda winning the Consumer Products and Cosmetics Editor’s Award for packaging in 2003"

    It's one thing for the EDF site to tell me about that, and quite another for me to have access to the conversation that Aveda had — and I'm sure is still having, with itself, its peers, and its customers — about that initiative and related ones.

    Is any of that conversation discoverable online?

    To the extent it isn't, can EDF work with its corporate partners to bring more of it online?

    To the extent that it is, can the EDF site highlight and frame that conversation?

    Doing that is what being the "hostess at a cocktail party" means, in my view, and I think it's critical.

  • Dave, markets do alright for the faster, lighter cheaper [x], but they are seldom that good for positive, radical innovation.

    Two of my favorite resources on innovation are How Breakthroughs Happen, by Andrew Hargadon, and Innovation Happens Elsewhere, by Richard Gabriel and Ron Goldman.

    Also, I recently gave a talk about Six Kinds of Innovation, which you can view here: http://www.slideshare.net/sociate/0902-michalski-6-kinds-of-innovation-w-fonts

  • Andrew Hutson | 8 years ago

    I think EDF is quite good at both analysis and interpretation, in terms of how we operate with our corporate partners. We develop tools to aid in analysis and we work with companies to implement changes that come from proper interpretation. I think we've traditionally shied away from the "process of conversation" in the past (as much as you can as an NGO) because these conversations have generically become gab-fests at best, and bulwarks AGAINST action at worst (I'm thinking here of the multi-stakeholder discussions that often get bogged down in minutia and frequently delay action, or worse, result in lowest common denominator outcomes). This is antithetical to who we are as an organization – totally results-driven.

    I think the Innovation Exchange can serve to change this by designing discussions that result in concrete actions and limit, to the extent possible, the fluff that comes from group gropes. Maintaining a focus on measurable outcomes is key. Even if you don't know what you're attempting to measure when you begin – it must be built into the agenda/workplan in order to be effective.

    Cocktail parties are great – but people often get drunk, have incoherent conversations that seem brilliant and insightful at the time, and make promises they quickly forget when they wake up with a hangover.

  • Greg Andeck | 8 years ago

    Dave, interesting post.

    It's true that creating a forum for conversation can lead to new and exciting ideas. The key, however, is getting the right people to come to the party. We've all thrown events where the mix wasn't quite right. Someone may have talked the whole time, or guests didn't quite click, or the event felt totally rehearsed without spontaneity. The key is that as much thought needs to be put into the guest list as goes into the content. At EDF, unless we are engaging the right folks – the ones doing innovative things, the ones with the power and willingness to implement, and the ones willing to challenge others, there's a real risk that we're just talking to ourselves. Or we may come up with great ideas, but ones that aren't implemented at the end of the day. Our challenge is not just to build a community, but the right kind of one.

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