Innovator’s Dilemmas

A bull is charging us and knowing which which — if any — horn we will take will determine what we innovate for.

Clayton Christensen passed away in 2020 — one of the year’s many losses — and was responsible for developing and popularizing the concept of the innovator’s dilemma. The book was largely focused on the role of technology as a change facilitator and driver and, to that end, does a remarkable job of pointing out ways in which our tools can upend our industry.

While technology is still a massive force in shaping and enabling innovation, the focus on it as the core dilemma provides us with a misleading understanding of the scope and practice of innovation in the first place.

Scope

The Innovator’s Dilemma was published in 2003 before social media became popular (we were still using terms like ‘Web 2.0’) and before both the 2008 financial crisis and the pandemic of the 2020’s. While the tenets of Christensen’s arguement are largely techno-agnostic, there is something about the media landscape that makes a difference when we consider the availability and utility of technology. For example, the current search and promotion tools used by small and medium-sized businesses through Google, Instagram, and others are designed to favour big players (and spenders).

The consolidation of media power (and marketing reach and exposure, by extension) coupled with policies like data discrimination and ISP bandwidth ‘throttling’ and we have a recipe for technological constraints that have little to do with technology itself and everything to do with policy.

For organizations that are having to pivot to manage their work in light of the restrictions and dangers posed by COVID-19, many challenges are only partly connected to technology at best. The switch to outdoor dining or the exclusive need for take-out or delivery might have little affect on technology if already in place. Sure, maybe a QR-code scanned menu might be new for most diners, but it fundamentally doesn’t change things for an industry.

The scope of the change is with the entire sector. The drivers of this are not technology, but a virus. We are not just seeing a shift in a sector, but in the society around it. While we are far from measuring what kind of effects will come from COVID-19, it’s clear that they will be widespread. These are interconnected, complex problems that are not going to reveal a clear pattern soon, maybe ever.

The innovator’s dilemma here is about figuring out where to focus our innovation efforts. What does it mean when the future is so unclear, the present so unstable, and the social and economic systems that we rely on so damaged?

Practice

The second dilemma is about how to focus our innovation. Is it better to pivot within a sector or seek to jump into another or to explore creating a new one altogether (the blue ocean strategy). This is also not about technology, but strategic foresight and innovation.

For the innovator’s themselves, one of the struggles might also be related to craft. If you are a chef and have been creating perfect-to-plate meals, service, and hosting environments there might be more than just some adaptation to a reality that could mean bicycle delivery or grocery services. The problem for restaurants that were designed for service quality, food excellence, and creating spaces for gathering is that none of these is in your control or part of your craft when it comes to an pandemic-oriented business model. Say what you will about the art of delivery and take-out food, but there is a measurable, distinct difference between that and in-person dining for many dishes.

What happens to the craft of food preparation? What happens to those event planners that are, at best, only partly able to create the magic of an in-person, hosted event at a distance? How is the craft of teaching different when your learners are checking out, unable to concentrate, or unwilling to participate through Zoom? Yes, you can teach, but where is the craft in that?

This is not to pretend that things are alright.

The practice of innovation might mean finding ways to change the business and protect the craft.

The kind of thinking that supports this is deliberative, futures-oriented, and highly experimental – it’s design thinking in its truest form. There’s the risk of becoming the blacksmith who sees the automobile as a passing fad. Or, there is the risk losing all of the things that have been invested in and that require attention, care, stewardship, and maintenance for when they are needed again.

Horns and Dilemmas

The idiom describing something that is on the horns of a dilemma is a reference to a Greek fable about deciding which way to turn when faced with a charging bull. There is no good answer.

This is where I’m supposed to say “here’s the 1-2-3 steps you can take to solve this” but I can’t. I can say that no matter what is happening now it will pass. It might not be better, but it will be different. Consider the leopard and how we must change to stay the same. Developing a sense of what is going on and what is the minimum visible system is one viable, practical step we can take. When the bull charges, we can at least learn something about the bull.

We can explore possibilities and risks in a manner that puts ideas on the table.

We can build our skills in evaluation — understanding value and its creation — too.

The horns of a dilemma are about dealing with sensemaking, evaluation, and quick-action in the midst of change and uncertainty. It is deliberate. Being deliberate, creating time, and practicing these three things is the only thing we can reasonably do while also remaining unreasonable as innovators.

Photo by Hans Eiskonen 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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