Interaction + Iteration = Innovation

Isaac Newton, in a rare moment of humility, acknowledged the contribution of others in his many achievements through the famous statement that he was ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. However, his insight should not be withheld for our historical heroic individuals – it applies to us all. And yet we seldom realise that this is the case as most of our histories tend to be about those individuals (almost always the successful ones) rather than the wider community within which they operate. Yet, they are, by definition, just the tip of the iceberg.

We’ve been arguing for some time that all innovation is fundamentally collaborative, and I believe it is becoming more so, given increasing specialisation in all domains. It may be possible to invent an idea or concept as an individual, though this always builds upon the work of others. But more importantly, to realise commercial or social value, requires input from many other people – both seen and unseen. And yet the finance, support and infrastructure for innovation in the UK (and elsewhere) tend to be mostly focussed upon the individual (person or organisation).

I’m particularly interested in the space between the individuals, or the ‘interaction’ within an innovation community. This interplay between participants has an inbuilt feedback mechanism or ‘iteration’ which is a hallmark of the design process and is essential in successful innovation. Good innovations don’t just rise to the surface naturally without the momentum of a wider community of advocates. Returning to science for a moment, modern physics is clear that the world works very differently at different scales. The laws that are true of atoms and sub-atomic particles do not ‘aggregate up’ to apply to larger masses and structures where entirely new emergent phenomena occur at larger scales e.g. magnetism. The same applies to groups and communities.

Therefore, I’m trying to get up to speed on the work of Burt, Gravenotter and Wenger to understand the sociology or anthropology of groups and networks. However this appears to be at an early stage of development and a fruitful strand of research. One of the evaluation techniques we are using in several of our Connect projects, Corporate Connections and RSA 360, is the use of video ethnography to observe and track the development of diverse range of participants seeking to innovate collaboratively. I think this will be fruitful and will reveal insights not obtained through traditional quantative or qualitative techniques.

But I am beginning to realise that we lack a vocabulary to even talk about group dynamics properly. Can anybody please provide me with examples of case studies that capture the essence of group dynamics (both positive and negative) that properly explain the emergence of collaborative innovation, rather than simply telling the stories of heroic individuals or aggregating individual behaviour?

Comments

  1. Roland
    The injection of NESTA investment has already produced some great ideas and collaborations between RSA staff, consultants and Fellows – as you can see from two blogs on the topic
    http://mtblog.typepad.com/rsa_networks/
    http://openrsa.blogspot.com/
    I hope that the NESTA ethos of open collaborative innovation will be a continuing inspiration. The challenge for the RSA – it seems to me – is to innovate externally with a wide range of interests, while turning the organisation inside out. There will, I’m sure, be lots of lessons, and it was really encouraging to meet Eleanor Ford who will be capturing those for you – and all of us.

  2. “to innovate externally with a wide range of interests, while turning the organisation inside out”…is the challenge of many, if not all organisations. I hope that we can learn some wider lessons from the RSA project to apply more widely and Eleanor role is a key part of that process.

  3. Hi Julia – The short answer is I’m still learning about it myself.
    But as I understand it is that ethnography is the essential technique of anthropologists which uses a neutral participant observer approach. This is based on the thinking that a system’s properties cannot necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other. Most standard programme evaluation activity tends to try to isolate the contribution of individual issues (or dimensions) e.g. please give marks out of 10 for the facilitator etc. We are also doing this with standard programme evaluation and analysis but are also overlaying ethnographic evaluation try try to understand the sum of the parts. And as it is recorded on video we will also have a permanent record.

  4. Roland,
    In reply to your question: ‘Can anybody please provide me with examples of case studies that capture the essence of group dynamics (both positive and negative) that properly explain the emergence of collaborative innovation, rather than simply telling the stories of heroic individuals or aggregating individual behaviour?’
    The answer is no, because such a case study could not possibly exist. This is why:
    The only way to explain the emergence of collaborative innovation is the story of heroic individuals, best understood through the lens of aggregating individual behaviour.
    We are, all of us, standing on the shoulders of giants, were we to interpret the phrase as you have done. Indeed to take your interpretation to its logical conclusion, there are no giants. The key allusion in this metaphor is that some, indeed the vast majority of people, are not standing on the shoulders of giants.
    To overlook the company or society of the ‘heroic individuals’, would be foolish, as the heroic individual’s success or failure depends on that society. Any quest for an understanding of innovation, however, need search no further than the ‘heroic individual’ him/her/itself. It is the ‘heroic individual’ who has the certitude to go on while most see a heretic individual. Wilhelm Reich, for example.
    In response to your reply to Julia: How exactly do you propose to ‘overlay’ video ethnography over marks out of ten, and to what effect?
    The multiplicity of circumstances which cause the ‘heroic individual’ to succeed or fail will be so vast in each situation as to render it impossible to capture on video. I cannot see how you expect video to capture these circumstances and how you expect such limited information to be of value either objectively or subjectively. Please consider the differences between qualitative and quantitative data.
    ‘And as it is recorded on video we will also have a permanent record’ – What does that mean? It has no validity as a statement, the only way I can interpret it is thus: “Oh my god I’m bored of posting to this blog and pretending to do any real work, I wish I could just sit around all day and watch youtube.”
    I suggest that if you want a proper explanation of the emergence of collaborative innovation, you need to be immersed in such collaborative innovation yourself, not by reading comments posted to your blog, but by being totally physically and mentally immersed. Even then you may but glimpse at what collaborative innovation truly is, through your eyes only.
    Simon

  5. Simon,
    I’m not suggesting we ignore the contribution of heroic individuals. I agree they are critical. I’m simply suggesting that we tend to overlook the communities or environments within which these individuals operate.
    Regarding the best approach to understanding collaborative innovation is to aggregate individual behaviour, I think we may need to agree to disagree. I suggest that this is frequently proven to be a poor indicator of group activity as it misses the key ingredient of interaction between group members and the influence that can exert. See Mark Earl’s book and blog called Herd for examples on this subject.
    Nesta Connect is all about examining, testing and showcasing successful collaborative innovation. The use of video ethnography is an experiment to overlay ontop of usual approaches to learning and evaluation, and I’ll post again in due course whether this has proved to be useful (as is my intuition) or not.
    Roland

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