Innovators and Maintainers

Innovators are nothing without maintainers to keep those innovations working: we forget that at our peril.

Innovation is what a colleague of mine calls one of those million dollar words that springs to mind all kinds of things that are meant to generate excitement in a business or organization.

Beyond the myriad misuses and abuses of the term, innovation is still a useful concept because as both a verb and a noun it describes something that is essential for survival and success in times of turbulence and change.

Maintainers: The Underappreciated Backbone of Innovation

What is less discussed is the equally vital role of the maintainer: the people who’s role it is to make sure that whatever new learning is transformed into value is actually used and kept up to date. The best example of this are airplanes or cars. Lee Vinsel, who has written much on the culture of maintainers (and innovation, too), recently spoke at an event hosted by the Smithsonian and pointed out how the language of disruption and innovation often papers over the important role of making sure things work. At the focus of his critique was the writings and popularity of the late Clayton Christensen who’s various works on disruptive innovation have gained wide purchase as a guide for innovation.

Writing in Aeon, Vinsel has gone on record saying that the maintainer role is undervalued and that it matters more than that of innovation. I disagree. I believe they are symbiont with each other – the two are required together as a system.

I do agree that maintainer roles are definitely undervalued and recognized.

Doing, Delivering, and Maintaining Innovation

Vinsel’s work and that of his colleagues (and many other maintainer groups) points to something critical about innovation that is as much a trap as it is a feature of innovation. What makes an innovation what it is — novelty — is something humans are biologically primed to notice. It’s why we’re alive. Yet, it’s the diligent, persistent, work that is characterized by maintainers that allows that ‘new’ to become established and offer value long after it ceases to be ‘new’.

New is only better when it’s either necessary or it provides demonstrable benefits over the alternatives. As long as the same, the ‘old’, the established, and steadfast is working well (and is poised to continue doing so) we don’t need innovation so much. Maintainers keep things moving.

They also allow for innovation to exist. You can’t innovate your existing service unless someone is maintaining the current service. Most organizations do not have the luxury or capability to just close up shop for an indeterminate amount of time while they figure out how to do the next thing. We need to build the new boat while we’re sailing the old boat — often on top of and with the old boat. That is where innovators and maintainers come together and that ability to devise, establish, launch, maintain, repair, and recreate something is what many in human services in particular do.

This is where behavioural science and design come together — it’s how we create and maintain innovation.

So next time you celebrate your innovators – remember to recognize the maintenance team, too. They need each other.

If you’re wanting to build the new while operating the current and need to know how to do it, contact me. I can help you fly the plane you’re building while in the air.

Photo by Andrew Ruiz on Unsplash and Jonathan Smith 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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