Monday, July 30, 2012

Innovation faces Orwellian resistance

I'm a big fan of George Orwell.  Not just the well-known works like Animal Farm or 1984, but also many of his writings on the use of English in political discussions, and his memoirs on the Spanish Civil War.  Perhaps none of his creations are as powerful, however, as his concept of doublespeak and doublethink in the novel 1984.  There are three concepts that underline the government of Oceania, the location where the novel takes place:

  • War is Peace
  • Freedom is Slavery
  • Ignorance is Strength
These concepts were meant to reinforce the power of the state and the existing order.  They were also meant to warn the citizens away from desiring rights that also come with obligations (freedom is slavery).  Freedom is slavery only when viewed from the perspective that free people have to work and think for themselves, and that working and thinking places a heavy burden on an individual.  Allowing the state, or by extension, a corporation, to think for you and dictate what and how you think relieves you of responsibility and work.  Likewise, ignorance is strength reminds you that those who are solid in their conviction of a few things, regardless of how "right" or "correct" the things they believe are, have great strength in their convictions and can't be swayed.  Those "intellectuals" who introduce new perspectives and new points of view are to be viewed with great suspicion.

Compare Orwell's structure and plot to 1984 with current management philosophies.  How is the thinking from Oceania different than that of many corporations?  After all, the focus is on maintaining the status quo at all odds, rejecting disruptions and anything that will change the dominant management "paradigm".  Rather than reinforcing political dogma, many organizations reinforce a bureaucratic dogma that employees must accept, and perform heroic deeds to achieve.

The existing corporate mantra in many companies goes something like this:

  • Creativity is Distraction
  • Innovation is Risk
  • Differentiation is Danger
 Our businesses have created informal, unannounced "rules" that individuals ignore or violate at their own risk.  We have Orwellian truths to recognize in our corporate cultures - concepts and frameworks that many people simply accept, and some fight or ignore.  What's interesting is none of these are "true" in the sense that while creativity may be a distraction, it is also necessary for growth and change.  The most significant risk to a business is assuming the world is static, without change and that the world can be governed through dictates the firm intentionally or unintentionally sends to its employees.  To be fair, most organizations don't have speakers in the walls that repeat corporate mantras or management edicts, or the Two Minute Hate focused on a problem or individual.  In most corporations reinforcement of thought is more insidious, through corporate culture, attitudes, perspectives, compensation and other means.

What appears to be a safe, rational approach to the market is actually the approach most fraught with challenges, as each change or disruption thrust on the business is unforeseen and must be responded to quickly.  So a comfortable, static, slow moving organization at a minimum must become an organization that understands foresight and change and is more responsive and nimble, or it will cease to exist.  If a responsive and nimble capability is achieved, it is only a small step to innovation.

If we look further at the language of innovation (and Orwell was always interested in language) we can see that innovation is dangerous because it creates "disruption".  Innovation can create "radical" change.  Both of these terms are antagonistic to status quo organizations.  Many innovators are hailed as "revolutionaries" who discovered new concepts or ideas.  The language surrounding innovation is a challenge to everyday organizations focused on constantly efficient processes allowing no variation or error.  Everything about innovation is subversive to the status quo, unless innovation is part of the status quo.

Finally, we hold up only a handful of innovators - Apple, Google, 3M, etc - in a sea of competitors because innovation is so subversive.  It is difficult to innovate once, much less consistently, especially as the inertia of the status quo sets in and the expectations of flawless execution creep in.  These firms that we hold up as examples of innovation are either subversive to the status quo, or have embedded innovation into their organizational culture and structure.  Orwell would have smiled, and noted that some animals are more equal than other animals when it comes to innovation.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:43 AM


Blogger Victor Newman said...

An alternative way of putting it is: innovation is a social and political act that destabilises the value of current stores of shared relational capital.

6:27 AM  

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