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Finding Innovation

Last week I tried to connect the idea of disruptive innovation to Lewis Hyde’s anthropological analysis of the mythological trickster. The comparison hinged on a couple ideas, namely that both are focused on the breaking of traditional trade-offs, and that breaking those trade-offs results in a re-ordering of the status quo, a re-ordering that reveals a particular abundance that was previously hidden by man made structures or convention.

I also argued that would be innovators could learn from Hyde’s work on the trickster by reading his book with an eye for insight into their behaviours, but it can also be read in a way that helps you find the innovators.

Badi b/w by Emilia Tjernström [Arriving at the horizon]

If you are looking for innovators

Look to immigrants or nomads. Those who are new to your organization or those who move around a lot may in fact be your most innovative. New arrivals bring fresh eyes, instinctively connect their new experiences with their previous ones creating a new middle ground for the organization to explore.

Look to people who can take more than a single world view. They have a diversity of interests that drives them to read things from and maintain relationship in different sectors. As a result they bring in ideas that seem foreign to many but yet always seem to contain some nugget of merit.

Look to those who are willing to start from square one, willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater and challenge the fundamental assumptions that dominate the discourse. People who don’t simply tear down straw men but build something out of bricks and mortar (or in a digital era perhaps I should say “1s and 0s”) to replace it.

Look to people who are good communicators. People who make you feel at ease about things that you are usually uneasy about, who easily bridge the gap between those at the working level and senior managers, knowing how to couch their words with either group.

Look to the people who are comfortable with change. They see everything as an opportunity and welcome whatever the newly reshaped world has in store for them.

Finally, look to the troublemakers. The peoples who’s transgressive nature exposes the more deeply problematic roots of more systemic and pressing problems. They use intellect, humour and satire whenever possible, nothing is off limits, and as a result they wind up getting into hot water now and again.

Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca


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Noel Hatch

Really top post. I’ve been thinking about how we need to look in the most unlikeliest places for innovators. Particularly when we can see the worldviews we’ve believed in fall apart, you wonder whether we need to start with how we think about problems before we think about what solutions we need, let alone executing them.

Think you’re spot on about needing a mix of people who can stir creative tensions and people that can make others feel good about thinking differently. How do you get them to get along?

Megan C. Bourke

I really like your point about looking out for “immigrants and nomads.” You’re spot on that innovation doesn’t just have to come from people who know the organization inside out. I think this is a lucky revelation, too. My generation will have multiple careers, let alone jobs. Doesn’t that bode well for how many different opportunities we as a generation will have to innovate in a brand new environment with brand new people? It’s an exciting prospect.

Jorge Aponte


I never though you were so close to me…

I propose that part of our nation’s lack of preponderant innovations problem, a feeling rising since the 1980’s, when almost every family started giving ADD control pills to our kids, might be root in it. It turned out to be the “A.D.D. (American Dream Denial)” [song by Malakian Tankian].


Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Good start to innovation but how do you avoid just preaching to choir? For real organizational change to occur, you have to engage a critical mass of employees to buy in to the vision. Otherwise, you are just another group of starry-eyed dreamers who don’t understand the real work of the agency.

Mie Miller

I like the post because the ideas for where to look for innovators remarkably match with my own observations and personal experiences. Thanks for the post.

Mark Hammer

“Innovation” is a problematic term to me. Not that I am opposed to it, in principal. It’s just that what gets considered as innovation in one place, can be highly disruptive in another, and merely fiddling around with the edges in still another. And lets be honest, not every public sector organization has a place for a Steve Jobs. Here I am guided by Larry Terry’s proposition that public institutions acquire and maintain their authoritativeness via consistency over time and staying authentically true to their mandate. Private sector copanies have “brands” and can’t scamper around ignoring them either, but where a public institution has to abide by its mandate, given in law, manufacturers and similar private sector organizations can elect to redefine their brand over time. So let’s be realistic about innovation in the public sector, and recognize that it must always be tethered to mandate.

If one looks at “innovation” related content in government employee surveys, one of the things you tend to see is that encouragement and tolerance for innovation can vary substantially by job type. Do we want border guards, prison guards, baggage screeners or food inspectors to “innovate”? Not as much as we want analysts or strategic HR planners to innovate. Innovation that is well within the mandate for one kind of job, diverges substantially for another kind, and may even run counter to the mandate or negatively impact on stakeholders in a third. To steal from Nigel Tufnel: it’s a fine line between innovative and disruptive, isn’t it?

That is not at all to throw cold water on the notion of injecting a little lateral thinking, but I think what counts as useful and appropriate innovation requires clarification in every case. I think, as well, that when one begins to cogitate about how to encourage innovation (and here I think I would personally rather use a phrase like “organizational improvement”), you need to think about which sorts of levels or employees you need or expect to get those productive new ideas from.

Sometimes, all you really need is for folks at the top to engage in a little of what Warren Bennis calls “management by wandering around”. In other words, the innovative ideas are already there, on “the shop floor”, but nobody with the appropriate level of authority is either aware of them, stringing them together, or implementing them. And sometimes the people with the authority simply move on to another promotion, before implementing anything, leaving any prospects for innovation frozen. Far from benefitting by the influx of “new blood”, organizations can sometimes suffer from the paralyzing effects of instability. After all, productive new ways of doing things can sometimes come from those who have been doing things the old way long enough to know what needs fixing. Certainly there can be tremendous advantage in looking at things through fresh eyes, but that doesnot make looking at things through experienced eyes invalid.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Mark – Excellent comment (and nice way to slip in a Spinal Tap quote). The problem is not the lack of innovative ideas; the problem is how to execute the good ideas without damaging the mission of the agency as you so rightly pointed out.

As Govindarajan and Trimble write about in their book, The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, many innovation efforts fail because the innovators don’t partner with the “performance engine” or the core processes of the organization’s work. By nature, performance engines are not designed for innovation but they can be helpful in developing the innovation to become the next iteration of the performance engine. It really comes down to how you define the innovative effort and the disruption it will have on the performance engine. The point is that innovation often has a better chance to succeed if there is a partnership rather than an antagonistic relationship with the status quo.

Sometimes, you do have to be disruptive but you better be sure that your innovation can fully replace the performance engine when the innovation is in place.

Steve Radick

When I was building my team, I purposely sought out one person because she was never afraid to tell me “Steve – that’s an awful idea and you should never bring that” or “Steve – you’re being a real ass right now.” I can’t stand being around people who only want to do what I want them to do, because shockingly, what I want them to do may be completely wrong or I may be missing an important data point somewhere. I like to jump around from idea and idea and need more level-headed people around me who can be totally honest with both the good and the bad.

Mark Hammer

Thanks, Bill. And you’re spot on, innovation is always about merging smoothly with an organization, already in progress.

Steve, some 30 years ago, in another life, I had the pleasure of spending an hour in the company of, interviewing, the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr. JAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMES BROWN!!

Swell guy, and a deserved icon, but I couldn’t help noticing that he was completely surrounded by people who constantly told him he was wonderful; sycophant city deeeeeeluxe. A year later, he ended up in jail for a rather shameful violent offense. Sometimes you need to salt the staff with a contrarian here and there, just to save you from yourself and your own worst tendencies.

Nicholas Charney

I’m digging the convo here, but to be clear the specific intent of the post was to carry forward some of the argumentation I made in a previous one.

I think the context I was trying to articulate was a very specific one. That being said I understand the need to (as Mark and Steve allude to below) mix staff in a manner that supports and attracts the innovators but in a way that doesn’t alienate (or more rightly that also attracts) the folks who can execute and the ones who can ensure the longevity of a particular agency’s brand.


Joe Williams

Good stuff. Using behaviors like those listed above as indicators, you’ll be able to uncover people whose natural talents gravitate towards innovation. In the public sector, such people are treasured resources for any team, whether it is a team dedicated to innovation, or just a team looking to improve existing processes and techniques in response to the changes going on all around us. I think it imperative to stock a team with diverse natural talents to maximize the decision-making space. Being aware of behaviors like those listed in the post will at least flag the more innovative-inclined members for team membership.