As with most things in life, our experience colors our expectations. Innovation is no exception. Most of us come to innovation with some personal and professional history and memories. The innovation stories born out of our actual experience, and those we tell ourselves tend to shape how we think and act in our innovation efforts. This holds true for the stories companies tell themselves as well—stories about their past and stories about their future.
Whatever else our innovation efforts are, they are certainly attempts to tell new stories, before the narrative has been experienced, or played out. This, I suppose, is the “vision thing.” The success of an innovation can be measured by how closely its history follows the original fiction or vision. Here is where a company's experience can so easily color its expectations; where past can shape future, even to the point wherein some inadvertently confine what we tell ourselves about our future to the same plot lines with which we have codified our past success.
If narrative (or story) is the workhorse of how our memories organize experience, then it behooves us to take a closer look at some of the subtler but fundamental tales we tell ourselves about our company's own innovation experience. It may have a direct bearing on how we think about, act and talk about our current innovation efforts.
Our friend and associate Stuart Brown, M.D. gave us a copy of Joseph Meeker's The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic published in 1997. Meeker has much to say to innovators, albeit indirectly. Meeker compares the tragic and the comic, not simply as literary categories, but as strategies for survival, with Dante and the natural world as his “database.” The comic, Meeker contends, is nature's much more successful (than the tragic) strategy for survival. By analogy, the comedic way is a more robust strategy for sustaining a stream of innovations as well.
With apologies to Meeker for taking liberties with his original work, perhaps we might re-examine the stories we tell ourselves about our company's (and our own) experiences with innovation, and do so through the lens of three major literary archetypes: tragedy, comedy and fairy tale.
Many of us unwittingly take a tragic view of our company's innovation mythology. Meeker reminds us that the “tragic way of playing the game of life is the finite way, seeking a prize or a payoff that will bring status to the victor even if it does tend to end the game….rest[ing] upon the premise that for every question there is only one right answer, and for every possibility of behavioral action there is one correct choice.”
This tragic bias tends to show up in subtle way, as when we ask of the new stories we are writing—i.e., the innovations we are currently working on—whether they fit with the company's business model or with the company's core competencies. The newer the innovation, the more likely the fit question will be answered in the tragic negative, if we assume that our future stories must somehow be a continuation of the past.
Others of us might have become a little too cynical about our company's innovation history. Many a promising innovator has been burned so often they become crusty and skeptical of most of the organization's attempts to innovate, and retreat to the clearer realities of the operating world. “We tried that before” is so often really the speaker's expressed wish not to have to deal with the new, nor accept the possibility that now may be a much better time. The cynics among us might be too quick to judge the innovation stories being composed by our design teams and advance technology folks as fairy tales or fantasies, mid-summer’s nights' dreams. Yes, dreams are important. If your society's dreamers and philosophers out number the plumbers, then neither the theories nor the pipes will hold water. Thomas Edison's “innovation is 1% inspiration (read fairy tale) and 99% perspiration” is hard to deny. However, there is still something about that 1%, isn't there?
Meeker reminds us that the best and most successful innovation stories are comedies—not tragedies or fairy tales—but stories full of adaptations and twists and turns, oozing with improvisations, serendipity and coincidence. Those business theorists now espousing “dynamic capabilities” as the true capital of an enterprise seem to be saying something similar. Though his comments were originally directed elsewhere, Meeker's words are prophetic to all of us engaged in parenting innovations:
“We mammals, along with the birds, have been playing and living comic lives for some two hundred million years. There is no need to learn how to play, for that knowledge is deeply embedded in our bones and genes. Play is as natural as breathing, and the comic urge for normalcy is as basic as the need for balance. If we nevertheless fail to pay and feel off-balance much of the time, it must be because we have bent ourselves terribly out of shape, imposing crushing mental and cultural burdens that make gravity seem more important than levity.”
This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in March 2006. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.