The sound of one hand innovating

February 12, 2013 by
Filed under: The RSA 


The great American comedian Shelley Berman (here is one of his funniest tropes) once said this:

“The philosopher asks ‘what is the sound on one hand clapping?’. Folks, I know that sound”

Having received only one comment on yesterday’s post, and that in a thoughtful but basically critical form from an RSA colleague, I know how old Shelley felt.

Still I plough on regardless. I concluded yesterday with this:

This may lead us away from two frequently asked questions in stagnant organisations; ‘why don’t we innovate?’ (the one-off change question) and ‘why can’t we change?’ (the systems question) to a rather more subtle one; ‘is the culture of our organisation such that significant one off innovations can precipitate benign system change?’

‘Ah’ I hear you say ‘but what kind of organisational culture facilitates the process whereby one off change leads to system change’.

I don’t know the answer but I like the question

I reflected on my own question and came up with three related answers:

Reflexivity: Organisations are more likely to spot innovation, and the potential (and challenge) this innovation may represent to the wider system in which it emerges, if they are places in which there is the space, capacity and confidence to reflect on what the organisation does, and why and how it does it.

Flexibility: Obviously, organisations are more likely to reap the system change potential of a one-of innovation if the organisation has the kind of adaptability to accomplish such change. But this isn’t just a matter of attitudes. The greater the costs an organisation has sunk in one  system for doing things and the more an organisation is functionally fragmented the greater is the likelihood that innovation will be seen as a threat, something to control or simply irrelevant.

Outcome focussed: Innovation often both offers a better way to accomplish the organisation’s goals and a threat to current ways of doing things and the interests which align with those ways. The more single-mindedly an organisation focusses on impact the more that balance will tilt towards the benefits and away from the costs.

Fair and democratic: When the implications of innovations for systems start to emerge an immediate issue will be who might gain and who might lose. An attempt by Government a few years ago to get public sector workers to suggest efficiency measures foundered partly because employees have no incentive to suggest ways in which they or their colleagues might be modernised out of a job. Innovation is more likely to occur and to spread to systems if people in the organisations feel the gains and losses of such change will be fairly and openly allocated rather than simply reinforcing existing power and reward structures.

When I reflect on these criteria in relation to the RSA I would say we are fair to middling on all of them but not yet outstanding at any (and given where I sit my view is likely to be unduly positive).

So there is some stuff here for me to reflect upon even as the howling winds of utter indifference swirl around me.

 

 

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2 Comments on The sound of one hand innovating

  1. Eddy Adams FRSA on Tue, 12th Feb 2013 2:34 pm
  2. Hi Matthew
    Not sure whether my remarks are inspired by pity or by some of your provocative insight – but you got a reply either way!
    I’m just finishing some work for URBACT looking at social innovation in cities across Europe. Your piece strikes a number of our chords. One is the need for shared space within organizations – and cities – to reflect together. Another is the fairness aspect. Some of those giving evidence to our process stressed that for many public sector workers, “change” is now a dirty word. This is particularly the case for those in the middle tier of organisations it seems. Visionary leaders and committed front line staff often seem more comfortable with the innovation principle. Those in the middle perhaps have more to lose, or feel that they have ‘seen it all before’. In any event, they often associate change as being ‘for the worse’.
    How we address this conundrum – in terms of revitalising publicly funded services is, of course, key. Where we see great examples – Participle’s work in the UK, Mindlab’s activities in Denmark and so on – its vital that these are shared with the widest audience to win over the cynics.
    Just heard someone say “Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible”. We are just at the start…

  3. Matthew Taylor on Tue, 12th Feb 2013 3:53 pm
  4. Hi Eddy

    Thanks for this. Really interested in your study. Is there anything published?

    Thanks

    Matthew

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