Innovation, change and why even standing still requires both

Cameron Norman
May 17 · 6 min read

Innovation is a misunderstood and often misrepresented concept that can provoke fear, indifference, resentment, confusion, or irrational exuberance around change. To understand the reasons why we can’t ignore innovation we need to look no further than the sage advice in The Leopard, a story of change and what it means for staying still, too.

It’s been said that change is the only constant.

It’s then a little funny that something so constant and pervasive — change — can invoke such strong reactions from people. (It’s like people fearing the sky — it’s always there). The reactions to the term change partly account for why innovation is a contentious term. Innovation is all about change. It is doing something new to produce value.

Whether we like it or not, the dynamics of change in our world are forcing us to recognize that innovation is not a luxury, it’s more than just a means to competitive advantage, it’s increasingly about survival.

If we take this as true, it means we need to build literacy in understanding what it is, what it means for us, and how to do it better. New Canadian research (PDF) looking at citizens attitudes toward innovation and their perception of it suggests there is a long way to go. The study has many flaws, some that might have to do with the widespread confusion surrounding the term ‘innovation’ and its use. Nevertheless, there are some insights that are worth exploring that may transcend the context of the study (Canada).

One of the findings worth noting is the tendency among young people (age 18–25) to view innovation as something more likely to be generated from individuals, rather than organizations or ecosystems. What is shared among demographic groups is that there is a perception of innovation as being ‘out there’ rather than something that is a part of our work needed to survive as organizations.

When staying still requires movement

Innovation is effectively a means to create change. Design is the discipline and practice of how we create change intentionally. While change is often thought of something that takes us from one state to another, it is also something that can help us preserve what we have when everything else is changing around us. To help understand this, let’s look at a lesson from The Leopard.

One of my favourite quotes comes from the Italian novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa from a scene where one character (a young nephew speaking to his aristocratic uncle who seeks to preserve the family’s status which is under threat from social, political, and technological change) says to another:

If want things to stay as they are, things will have to change

I’ve referred to this quote in writing about the psychology of organizations and the folly of fads in innovation and design thinking. It is a powerful reminder that even staying still requires energy when everything else around you is in motion. Complex systems — which reflects most human systems — present the paradox that standing still requires movement.

The lesson from The Leopard can be applied to innovation, too. We can choose not to invest in innovation — -knowledge, tools, organizational change — however that is also a choice to change based on what the system presents us. It’s about whether we want to create the change we want and get ahead of or at least stay with the currents, or react to them later.

The choice is ours. Both are about survival, but one of them is about design.

Survival, by design

The aforementioned recent survey of 2000 Canadians by the Rideau Hall Foundation focused on whether Canada was creating a culture of innovation (as defined below):

A culture of innovation is one where the general public has shared values and beliefs that innovation is essential for collective well-being

David Johnson, Governor General of Canada

A culture of innovation is not one that just happens, it requires intentional work: design. This includes making explicit effort to shift perceptions of innovation being something novel, technology-dependent, and fitting the fetishistic perspective that dominates much of corporate discourse. What was once about creating new ways to create value, increasingly it’s becoming a means to preserve value, too.

Some ways to do this include the following:

From surviving to thriving

The interconnection of social, technological, and environmental systems has created an unprecedented level of complexity for human beings. This complexity means our ability to learn from the past is muddled, just as our ability to see and predict what’s coming is limited. The feedback cycles that we need to make decisions — including the choice to remain still — are getting shorter as a result and require new, different, and better data than we could rely on before.

Survival is necessary, but not very inspiring. Innovation can generate a means to invigorate an organization and provide renewed purpose for those working in them. By connecting what it is that you do, to what you want, to what is happening (now and in the near-present) on a regular basis and viewing your programs and services more like gardens than mechanical devices, we have the chance to design with and for complexity rather than compete against it.

For a brilliant example of this metaphor of the garden in creative work and complexity see Brian Eno’s talk with The Edge Foundation. Eno speaks about the need to get past this idea of seeing the entire whole and enjoying the creative space that takes place within the boundaries you can see. It’s not about simple reactivity, it’s a proactive, yet humble approach to designing things (in his case, music) that allows him to work with complexity, not against it. It allows him to thrive.

(More on this idea in a future post).

Working with complexity means designing your work for complexity. It means being like The Leopard (the book, but maybe the cat, too) and be willing to embrace change as a way of living, not just to survive, but to thrive. Think about what changes you need to make and how to design for them. In doing so, you might find yourself and your organization uncovering something new while preserving what you have.

** This story has been adapated from an original post made on Censemaking.

Photos by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash , Adaivorukamuthan on Unsplash,
and Alexandre St-Louis on Unsplash

Cameron Norman

Written by

Designer, evaluator and community psychologist interested in creating beautiful, healthy, innovative spaces for human excellence. Lover of coffee. Nerd.