Innovation and Maintenance: A Book Review

Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell are leading voices in arguing for a bigger place for maintaining things in this world in our culture, not just for creating or innovating. In The Innovation Delusion what could have been a powerful charge to embrace maintainer culture and thinking is drown out by a poorly organized and researched book that is more cheerleading than argument to change.

They don’t make things like they used to” is a phrase that I find myself saying more often. It’s not that I’m (just) getting older, it’s the truth. As Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell note: we forget that any infrastructure we create to sustain innovation must be maintained. So that shiny new gadget, tool, process or product requires some kind of maintenance to keep it going.

Maintenance is something that keeps what we have from going to the landfill. Good maintenance is what keeps things going. Without it, no amount of innovation will help.

The idea of maintenance and the culture that can be created by those interested in it is what this book is (supposed) to be about. At least, I think so. The problem is that this book is many different things and not all of them go together — or at least the authors fail to make the case that they go together well or go together in the way they say.

(Dis)organization

The Innovation Delusion could have been a means to showcase how maintenance culture fits with innovation and how the two can go together. It could have also been a way to creatively illustrate how much of the discourse on innovation, design and design thinking, and sustainability is deceptive and delusional without considering the role of maintenance. The book could have also been a way to showcase the skill sets, the mental models, and the environmental (and social) responsibility that maintainers hold and bring.

Instead, the book rambles through short snippets of these issues, bypassing details and focusing much more on what I see as cheerleading and attack. The cheerleading is about painting an often idyllic picture of maintenance workers while not-so-subtly trashing those who innovate. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. The subtitle says what they believe matters most and I don’t think it’s a competition between the two ideas of innovation and maintenance.

In some fairness, Vinsel and Russell aren’t anti-innovation, but it’s hard not to see them in this light with so little positive commentary on it. Even ideas that deserve many critiques and criticism like Design Thinking and Innovation Sprints get a light treatment and little detailed analysis. For example, it’s not enough to simply refer to Natasha Jen‘s 99u talk (Design Thinking is Bullshit) as the source of criticism of Design Thinking. Meanwhile, innovation gets treated as something that offers a few good ideas, but is largely fuelled by hype, hyperbole, and failed promises.

This is where the disorganization of the book comes in. The authors make some important points about why maintainers are important. What the constant push to ‘new’ presents to our planet and the corporate strategy that underpins so much environmental destruction and inequality is also discussed. However, these ideas are presented with such little detailed, organized research that it’s hard to find enough to hold on to. It’s also not convincing — not that I disbelieve the authors, I just don’t see the evidence linking some of the ideas they discuss with one another enough to use them.

The book is not the one I’d give innovation-speak-types to counter their hype.

(Dis)Connection

I suspect the title — The Innovation Delusion – was intended to draw in people like me who might not be as attracted to the idea of maintenance which, as the authors themselves point out, isn’t nearly as attractive-sounding as innovation to many in business. Which is part of the reason why this book should matter.

Innovation should never be about what’s cool. It should be about making things better and what maintenance does is make some things better by keeping them around longer and running well. Maintenance allows us to keep things rather than replace them. The dark side of innovation is when it exists for itself and not for people or the planet.

This is at the root of what the authors call ‘innovation-speak’. It’s the hype, the jargon, and the unnecessary glorification of all things new. The idea of innovation-speak is something that is worthy of critique. As this blog demonstrates, innovation is far too important to be left to hyperbole and sustainable innovation through responsible design thinking is (in my mind) one of the greatest opportunities we have to stay alive and thrive in an era of pandemics and climate change.

But this isn’t the angle of the book. Even if the book was focused on a full take-down of the hype-hucksters and innovation consultants I’d be comfortable, but it isn’t. Instead of systematically exploring the flawed arguments contained within ‘innovation speak’ or ‘design thinking’ and the like and countering them with something more constructive, the book resorts mostly to mockery and dismissal on one side and praise and celebration of the other side.

Had the book sought to critique the fluffy, non-outcome driven, hype-cycle language with solid arguments for where innovation works well, where it connects to maintenance, and then how maintainers allow innovation to work well — this would be a ‘must read’.

Instead, the ideas are good in theory, but not articulated in a manner that allows us to readily use them. As someone who supports innovation work I always look for counterfactuals to ensure I do good, responsible, and effective work with my clients and partners. This book provides few of those.

Dis(Continuity)

I see great maintenance as being about continuity: keeping things going. A maintenance culture would allow me to get my consumer electronics fixed easily and in way that generated real value.

I’m not sure I know what Vinsel and Russell mean when they say maintenance. They provide examples by highlighting the work of mechanics, software engineers, and nurses in maintaining things (or people), but maintenance of the human body (something that grows and evolves over time) is different than maintaining an engine.

The creative talents required to figure out how to fix something and keep it operating smoothly over time are not much different than those needed to make something to solve a problem. I would have loved to have seen Vinsel and Russell make the case that we can use creativity and the love of solving problems to connect innovation and maintenance together.

I’d have loved to have seen more about the ethical responsibilities we have to make products and services that minimize or reduce harm to people and planet together (why maintenance has to be part of an innovation agenda).

I’d have also loved to have learned what it means to maintain something. Seriously — I didn’t really see a definition or have it fully discussed in practical terms to help readers fall in love with maintenance. I’d have loved to have read about the ways — in detail – that maintenance is an art form and the thinking processes that great maintainers use to keep something going.

But I didn’t get that.

The book does convey a sense of passion and a strong sense of community that comes from people who like to maintain things. For many of them, this book will feel like a homecoming of sorts. To the rest of us, this is an opportunity lost.

Perhaps its an opportunity gained for others to fill the gap that I had hoped this book would fill.

Photos by Maxim Selyuk on Unsplash, Paul Zoetemeijer on Unsplash, and Tekton 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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