Innovation, Change and The Leopard

Innovation is a misunderstood and often misrepresented concept that can provoke fear, indifference, resentment, confusion, or irrational exuberance. 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.

It’s been said that the only true constant is change. Funny that something so constant and pervasive — change — invokes such strong reactions from people. It’s partly why innovation can be such a contentious term. 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.

New Canadian research (PDF) looking at citizens attitudes toward innovation and their perception of it suggests there is much to be done to understand what survival and innovation mean for our collective wellbeing. Before getting to that, let’s first define innovation.

There are many definitions of innovation (see here, here, and here for some), but let’s keep it simple:

Innovation is doing something new to generate value

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.

Change Lessons from The Leopard

One of my favourite quotes comes from the Italian novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa where one character (a young nephew speaking to his aristocratic uncle who seeks to preserve the family’s status) says to another:

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

The Leopard (translated from Italian)

I’ve written about this quote before, looking at the psychology of organizations and the folly of fads in innovation and design thinking. It’s about change, but really it’s about innovation and survival.

While individual humans are pretty resilient in the face of changing conditions, organizations are not so easily adaptive. Our family, friends, neighbours, and maybe governments will look after us if things get really bad (for a while, at least), but there are few looking after organizations.

For organizations – non-profit, profit-seeking, and governmental alike — innovation is the means to improve, to adapt, or maintain the status quo. It’s no longer a luxury — it’s about survival. Just as a real leopard has spots that are part of it’s form to survive, so too must we consider examining what kind of survival mechanisms we can build into our forms. That means: design.

Survival, by Design

A recent survey of 2000 Canadians by the Rideau Hall Foundation looked at Canadians attitudes toward innovation and whether Canada was creating a culture of innovation.


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

There are many flaws with this study. There’s a reason I defined what I meant by innovation at the beginning of this post; it’s because there’s so much confusion surrounding the term, its meaning, and use. I suspect that same confusion entered this study. Nevertheless, there are some insights that are worth exploring that may transcend the context of the study (Canada).

One of these is the tendency among young people (age 18-25) to view innovation as something more likely to be generated from individuals. There is also differences in perceptions between men and women about who is best suited for innovation. What is shared is this perception of innovation as being ‘out there’, which is part of our problem.

If we view innovation as something needed to survive — to change or to keep things as they are– then we need to shift the thinking from innovation being something novel, technology-dependent, and fitting the fetishistic perspective that dominates corporate discourse. That requires an intentional, skillful approach to designing for change (and survival). It means:

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 later.

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.

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

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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