Friday, October 28, 2011

Finding Innovation

Last week I tried to connect the idea of disruptive innovation to Lewis Hyde's anthropological analysis of the mythological trickster. The comparison hinged on a couple ideas, namely that both are focused on the breaking of traditional trade-offs, and that breaking those trade-offs results in a re-ordering of the status quo, a re-ordering that reveals a particular abundance that was previously hidden by man made structures or convention.

I also argued that would be innovators could learn from Hyde's work on the trickster by reading his book with an eye for insight into their behaviours, but it can also be read in a way that helps you find the innovators.
Badi b/w by Emilia Tjernström [Arriving at the horizon]
If you are looking for innovators ...

Look to immigrants or nomads. Those who are new to your organization or those who move around a lot may in fact be your most innovative. New arrivals bring fresh eyes, instinctively connect their new experiences with their previous ones creating a new middle ground for the organization to explore.

Look to people who can take more than a single world view. They have a diversity of interests that drives them to read things from and maintain relationship in different sectors. As a result they bring in ideas that seem foreign to many but yet always seem to contain some nugget of merit.

Look to those who are willing to start from square one, willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater and challenge the fundamental assumptions that dominate the discourse. People who don't simply tear down straw men but build something out of bricks and mortar (or in a digital era perhaps I should say "1s and 0s") to replace it.

Look to people who are good communicators. People who make you feel at ease about things that you are usually uneasy about, who easily bridge the gap between those at the working level and senior managers, knowing how to couch their words with either group.

Look to the people who are comfortable with change. They see everything as an opportunity and welcome whatever the newly reshaped world has in store for them.

Finally, look to the troublemakers. The peoples whose transgressive nature exposes the more deeply problematic roots of more systemic and pressing problems. They use intellect, humour and satire whenever possible, nothing is off limits, and as a result they wind up getting into hot water now and again.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, October 21, 2011

Innovation is tricky, literally ...

I had the opportunity this week to spend a bit of time with Bill Eggers. Bill is the Global Director of Deloitte's Public Sector practice, is the author of numerous books including If we can put a man on the moon: Getting big things done in government, and is (most importantly) a friend. Bill constantly pushes public sector thinking to the next level and always supports his position with compelling and well-researched examples. His passion for post-bureaucratic government - a model of government that he describes as cheaper, faster, collaborative, open and agile - is both commendable and a source for renewed inspiration.

Disruptive innovation is about breaking trade-offs

In his talk at GTEC Bill argued that disruptive innovation is about breaking traditional and readily-accepted trade-offs. For example Bill argued that modern day smart phones break the historical trade-off between price and performance, citing that a BlackBerry has more computing power than the original Apollo mission. The availability of low-cost and high performance mobile devices has disrupted the market for desktop computers in countries like Africa where consumers are skipping desktops and jumping right into smartphones. The core idea of the argument is that the post-innovation environment looks fundamentally different than the pre-innovation environment, meaning, among other things, that process improvement isn't the same thing as innovation.

Connecting disruptive innovation to comparative anthropology

I recently finished reading Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World. The book, the first chapter of which is available online, uses a group of ancient myths to argue for the kind of disruptive intelligence all cultures need if they are to remain lively, flexible and open to change, or as the TED blog explains:
The trickster is anybody who’s a bit of an outsider. They’re the ones who make change. They’re not thinking about making changes, they’re almost doing it in a selfish way. But because they’re working outside the rules, they change the rules. Everything around them is always new, everything is an opportunity ...
[T]hey got to the place where they are because they worked outside the system. They do mischievous things, but they’re extremely disciplined. Because that’s the other thing about tricksters: They’re never lazy. They’re very industrious.
It’s important to honour mischief-making, in a constructive and creative way, because that’s how we effect change. And it’s so important that we figure out our inner mischief maker. That’s the creative part of us. And everybody’s capable of it.
Trickster Makes This World is also about the immigrant experience, because immigrants are, at first, outside the system, and figure out how to work with the system. And they end up changing the system.

Innovators as Tricksters?

When I was reading the book I started to connect the mental models of Innovators and Tricksters. What I'd like to do is share some quotations from the book that should help you do the same. In so doing remember the core idea above, that (1) innovation is disruptive and requires breaking traditional trade-offs, and that (2) the post-innovation environment looks fundamentally different than the pre-innovation environment.
What tricksters like is the flexible or movable joint. If a joint comes apart, or if it moves from one place to another, or if it simply loosens up where it had begun to stick and stiffen, some trickster has probably been involved... In many cultures, as we have seen, much of the play of tricksters amounts to a reshaping (disjointing, rejointing) of the world around them. (p.257-258)
You can see the from the quotation above that tricksters are drawn to joints (where two ideas or constructs meet) much as would-be innovators purposely look to separate historical trade-offs. Furthermore, you can see from the quotation below that this separation results in some re-ordering of the status quo:
In trickster's world, appetite is a pore-seeking power, and thus appetites prophesy. Their prophesy reveals the hidden joints holding an old world together, the hidden pores leading out. If you don't believe me, try keeping Hermes away from your cattle; try keeping Monkey out of the orchard when the fruit gets ripe. This is the first part of trickster prophecy - appetite seeking the pores of artifice - and it brings directly the second part, the revelation of plenitude. Remember that Krishna, the thief of butter and of hearts, does not steal because the objects of his desires are intrinsically scarce. He steals because they are abundant but human order has limited them. (p.292)
Not only are tricksters drawn to the joints but they actively trying to expose them (if hidden) or exploit them (when not hidden). What interests me here is the latter part of the quotation which indicates that after the trickster breaks the traditional trade-off (the joint) he or she reveals plenitude that "human order" (law, culture or convention) has limited. This makes perfect sense in the context of Bill's example about smartphones that I invoked earlier. Breaking the trade-off between price and performance has contributed to the massive growth of mobile, and has fundamentally reshaped our lives.

Innovation is tricky

 If we follow the joining of these ideas to their natural endpoint, would-be innovators (tricksters!) could learn a few things if they approach Hyde's book as a tactical manual. By this I mean that innovators should endeavour to draw ideas from from anywhere, adapt as circumstances require and look at issues from a multitude of vantage points:
[Unrequited] belief is single minded and cannot do what trickster does, open the corridors of humor that allow the mind to toy with itself and with its creations. Along with the revelation of plenitude, then, comes revelation of a complex, joint-working consciousness, one that can always find those corridors of humor, one that will play with any concept, no matter how serious it seems, and one that can create new artifice if need be, that can turn to shaping when it tires of shifting...
The landscape is constant potential for that travelling intelligence, because the present situation is always dissolving and things that the horizon once obscured are coming into view. That intelligence belongs to the wanderer who has heard the same object called different names in different cities. It belongs to the time traveller, the immigrant child in all of us. (p.297-298)

Literally ... 

After having read the book, not only do I agree that Trickster makes this world, but I'm starting to think that it may just make an era of post-bureaucratic government too. If you are interested in hearing a bit more about the Trickster I suggest you watch Emily Levine's TED talk (embedded below) called "A Trickster's Theory of Everything", its actually the reason I picked up the book in the first place.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Bureaucrat Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged is a book that is close to my heart, and despite what you may think about the philosophy of Ayn Rand (Objectivism), I can't help but identify with the struggle of the book's central protagonists.

Perhaps it was because I read Atlas in my first year in the public service as I battled work-related depression, having left a job at an NHL franchise in the midst of its cup run in order to try my hand in the public sector. The novel depicts American industrialists as the metaphor for Atlas of Greek mythology, holding up the Earth, whom John Galt (the central character of the novel) persuades to "shrug," by refusing to lend their productive genius to the regime any longer.

 (spoiler alert) 

Essentially the story is about John Galt, a man stifled by oppressive bureaucratic functionaries and a culture defined by mediocrity and egalitarianism who leaves his job at a motor company and starts recruiting other prominent industrialists to do the same. The book follows the actions of Dagny Taggart who struggles with the choice to either try to change the system from within or simply walk away and leave it to those who would stay the course and (the implication is) eventually run the ship aground (btw this is the origin of the phrase "Going Galt").

This Atlassian struggle is one that has defined my career thus far, and, should I choose to continue my career in this sector, will invariably define it for the remainder of it. Should I continue to push for change from within the system or simply abandon the effort in its entirety? Everyone I've spoken with has identified the pressing need for deep change in this sector; some have even told me that they think we are approaching the breaking point, making this choice all the more important.

Please don't misunderstand me, I'm not trying to liken myself to some sort of public sector equivalent to a Greek god, I'm simply identifying with the immensity of the task facing every agent of change in the public sector right now, and I don't just mean here in Canada but everywhere. Changes in our social fabric brought on by advancements in communications technologies coupled with the immensity of budgetary cuts requires a fundamental rethinking of public services. These are difficult and (to borrow the popular verbiage right now) austere times. Given the circumstances I doubt we can afford oppressive bureaucracies or a mediocre culture.

To wit, I don't think its just me contemplating shrugging right now, its anyone who has banged their head against the wall one too many times.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, October 7, 2011

Failure as a Competitive Advantage

Whenever I speak about failure I try to re-position it as a competitive advantage:
What kind of organization would you rather work for? One that tries, fails, learns and tries again? Or one that never tries, never fails, never learns?
I ask the question because I think that these two organizations are on two radically different trajectories in terms of their ability to be innovative. Furthermore, in a hyper connected world my hypothesis is that talented people will self select to organizations that try, fail, learn, and try again, while the less talented will naturally gravitate towards the organizations who don't (i.e. atrophy doesn't require talent).

When was the last time you stopped to ask yourself what type of organization you work for?

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Monday, October 3, 2011

Public service renewal: the weekly round-up

Fellow govvies,

the must-reads of the week. Stay warm a
nd dry!

Snip snip:

Remaking public service culture:

This post has been a collaborative effort from Lee-Anne Peluk and Nicholas Charney.You can check out Lee-Anne's blog "In the Shuffle" at