Doing Nothing: An Innovation Paradox

What if the most disruptive innovation you could make was to do nothing? Principles can help.

The question above was posed in a recent article looking at the ways in which corporate innovation strategies often fail. The authors propse four ‘freedoms’ that organizations can nurture to promote innovation: 1) aligned incentives, 2) operational freedom (for staff), 3) long-term financial commitment, and 4) an effective, aligned governance model. That all sounds reasonable, but it doesn’t answer the question.

A better answer might have found ourselves discussing principles, complexity, and the paradox that comes from stillness.

Splash Dynamics

One of the lessons you’re taught before whitewater rafting is to do nothing if you’re ejected from your raft while going through rapids and whirlpools. An ejection experience can be disorienting between with the roar of the water combined with the blackness underneath it all while you are being thrown around, pushed multiple directions in a matter of seconds while you can’t breathe and yet your heart is racing (trust me on this). Our human tendency in this situation is toward action: just swim.

That’s exactly the wrong thing to do.

Swimming might just direct you downward or under a rock or some other hazard. The best option is to release yourself from doing anything and just let your life jacket’s floating qualities pull you up.

Here you are thrown into chaos, can’t breathe with a mouth full of water, disoriented and you have to fight the human impulse to act in order to save your life.

In these circumstances, doing nothing is the best option for you. It mirrors what we see when organizations (and humans) face crises of similar complexity and chaos. The reason is that the landscape you’re seeking to directly influence is under such massive change it becomes impossible to coordinate resources to act on the system. Systems action requires some form of alignment — of energy, resources, and feedback — and this becomes impossible at a large scale. I

t’s one of the reasons why the wise course of action to initiate large change involves small actions, done persistently. It’s about nudging change through the smallest visible system.

Complexity, Chaos, Principles, Strategy

Taking strategic (i.e., intentional, planned, goal-directed) action in chaotic or highly complex conditions means driving toward coherence wherever possible. When being bounced through the waves of a whitewater rapids the movement is quick, random, and dynamic. The upward pull of the life jacket is the force that provides coherence in that situation and it works when we don’t fight it. The more we struggle, the less effective the life jacket is.

Practically speaking, there are times when we need to consider doing nothing. Principles are our life jacket. A set of principles, developed and adopted in practice within an organization operates the same way as a life jacket by providing coherence where it doesn’t exist.

Michael Quinn Patton has explored the role of principles in guiding evaluation — which is the way we can tell what’s going on and what’s being impacted (and how) — and has illustrated how we can incorporate the development of principles for use in guiding our strategy (see the link for resources). Evaluation fits with innovation — it’s a key part of it — so the translation from one context to another isn’t a leap.

Patton recommends that principles, in whatever form they take, fit a GUIDE:

  • (G) (meaningful) guidance
  • (U) useful
  • (I) inspiring
  • (D) developmentally adaptable
  • (E) evaluable

What this means is that they are things that provide guidance in what to do when there is no meaningful data or clear option present before us. It also provides us with a means to avoid doing something that is highly reactive. The “D” guidepost — developmentally adaptive – is about making changes that are coherent with the values and mission of your organization. For innovation, that might mean not pursuing the latest trend (e.g., the flight to ‘digital’ without the alignment with what you do) , but taking stock of what assets you have and doing better with them.

If the system is in churn, your actions may just be swamped under with everything else. To illustrate, rather than be stuck in ‘physical’ you’re lost in an unpurposeful, poorly conceived of, over-crowded digital landscape. Is that what you want? Maybe digital is the answer in some cases, but the manner in which its used might be quite different than what our flight and fight response encourages us toward.

The key is to avoid the rush to action when it’s not clear what action there is to take. This returns to the question posed at the beginning and the answer is: Yes.

This design for pause is a real thing. It’s also difficult for many of us, but it can be done well. Need help with this? Contact me and we can take bold action and sit still, wisely.

Photo by Christoffer Engström on Unsplash, Herve Villard Habonimana on Unsplash, and Jeremy Bishop 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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