Time and the Linear Bend of Innovation Expectations

Among the two greatest constraints for innovation is time and the expectations we have attached to it.

If only we could adapt, create and implement an innovation at the drop of a hat.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Most innovation work isn’t like that. That’s a frustration for many of the clients I work with and with anyone — myself included – who’s ever tried to make a big change in their lives.

If we are to evaluate an innovation we would look at how it was developed (and how that matched with expectations),

Much like the often mis-quoted expression “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”, we might have to wait to get the fruits of our labour until we’re ready. Much of this has to do with the lack of straightforward linear connections between what we plan, what we do, and what we achieve. We might do the work without seeing the outcomes attached to it

Managing Our Expectations: Complexity

I deal with the matter of expectations and outcomes in innovation work all the time. Very rarely do evaluation plans map to outputs and outcomes when it comes to innovation work. The reason is that the very act of creation changes how we understand the subject matter we’re working with.

It’s one thing to come up with outlines and work plans, but much like the quote below, they don’t stand up to reality.

No plan survives contact with the enemy

Attributed to many

The reason for this are many. The first is that we can’t understand complex material in context from a distance; we need to get amongst it.

It’s in getting close to and working with material that we start to understand the relationships between causes and consequences, products and services, or individuals and ecosystems. We can’t work with complexity from a distance. This means that our initial assessments of what is going on are partial at best.

The closer we get and the more engaged we become the more we understand. This is what sensemaking is all about.

Managing our Expectations: Evaluation

As we’ve discussed, sensemaking is a process of making meaning from complex situations. Complex situations are those where most human activity occurs with all its various relationships, interconnections, and time delays. It recognizes that we’re not always rational and that circumstances mess up our plans – just like what John Lennon (and many others) are believed to have once said:

Life happens when we’re busy making other plans

The Internet

So if our plans change, what does that mean for our outcomes? Evaluation helps us to track what we do, what we create, and what effect our creations have on the world. This means that, in many cases, we need adaptive, more developmental approaches to evaluation.

A developmental approach to evaluation is one that accounts for complexity and adaptation and recognizes that even the act of evaluation itself (and its design) must be open to changing to recognize context. The integrity in the evaluation is not in how it keeps tightly aligned to the plan, but how it accounts for change, development, and a more larger objective.

Developmental is more about strategy, not tactics. This is where things get, well, complex.

Managing our Expectations: Strategy

Strategy is connecting our intentions to actions. This is where the great tension comes in. Our intentions are about setting a timeline, a set of promised deliverables, and a set of clear outcomes.

As you can imagine, innovation work rarely maps on to this. No amount of Agile, project management, and technology will eliminate this. We might be able to manage our time a bit better to keep in sync with these kinds of challenges, but we can manage the complexity away.

This means developing plans that included substantial opportunities to explore, learn, probe, and reflect on what you’re looking to affect or understand. It means creating time for sensemaking. At the core, it means accounting for real, true learning.

By creating a strategy that accounts for how we learn – designing for humans — and how we create we can not only innovation more sustainably, but we can also get more from what we generate.

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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