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Driving innovation with constructive subversion

At a recent Innovation Month conference, Ethics Centre chief Simon Longstaff recommended “constructive subversion” as a way to “undermine unthinking custom and practice”. Longstaff presented six steps to create such an environment, which he considers a prerequisite for organisational innovation:

  1. A credible promise backed by genuine commitment from the top
  2. Explain why innovation is necessary to achieving an organisation’s purpose, along with potential consequences and ethical constraints
  3. Ensure that policies, systems, and structures send the right signals and incentives to staff
  4. Delegate authority to allow responsible choices and calculated risks
  5. Establish an environment of open communications
  6. Allow the possibility of taking a long-term view

The problem with Longstaff’s approach is that a system that is not innovative will, by definition, resist the changes necessary to become innovative. Worse, as Chris Argyris points out, organisations can adopt so-called ‘Model I thinking’ which provides a self-sealing logic against any discussion of whether an organisation has in fact “become innovative”.

Graham Leicester provides an alternative perspective, writing in an excellent post on why transformative innovation fails:

Why does policy-making seem so uninspired, so formulaic, and so ineffective? Why do so many bright, well-intentioned people involved in policy making in public service seem destined to fall short of their noble aspirations? …

Albert Hirschman sheds light with his analysis of the three dominant arguments against progressive change: jeopardy (‘if you do that it will put at risk existing gains’), perversity (‘if you do that it will have the opposite of the intended effect’) and futility (‘if you do that it will have no effect at all’). These are extraordinarily effective tactical arguments, especially among a fearful populace, and ubiquitous.

These arguments, combined with a paucity of simple financial measurements of success in the public sector, lead to a risk-averse culture. And ironically, asking for “innovation” in a risk-averse environment can just lead to staff asking in true Sir Humphrey Appleby style, “What kind of innovation do you want?”

So except for the rare staff who are prepared to push through boundaries — regardless of the incentives to sit back and do nothing — how do we bootstrap innovation? One option is radical destruction – outsourcing a whole function, introducing a significant technology change, or wholesale restructuring of hierarchies. These can generate innovation, but at the cost of a massive short-term drop in productivity and effectiveness.

A more gentle option is to force the introduction of constructive subversion by deliberately introducing uncertainty into decision-making. If the goal is to ensure that options for action are evaluated on their merits, and not on the relative authority of the person presenting the option, all that is necessary is to hide the source of the option.

For example, rather than having the CEO present the plan for change at an all-staff meeting, why not find non-managerial staff who are prepared to take the lead in fixing or improving things and have them drive change from the bottom?

Then — and most critically — ensure that some of the ideas to be presented by staff have the (covert) blessing of the CEO. This will prevent staff from reflexively resisting or accepting change based on its source and instead generate discussion and evaluation based on the idea itself.

Would you try an approach like this to foster innovation in your organisation? And if not, why not?

Stephen Bounds

Stephen Bounds is an Information and Knowledge Management Specialist with a wide range of experience across the government and private sectors. As founding editor of RealKM and Executive, Information Management at Cordelta, Stephen provides clear strategic thinking along with a hands-on approach to help organisations successfully develop and implement modern information systems.

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