Passing 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?