Three top books on Innovation: what lessons for development agencies?

February 9, 2012 12 By admin

So since we are always being told to be more innovative (has anyone ever asked you to be less innovative?) I thought I’d see what some innovation gurus have to say. I could pretend this is part of my New Year’s Resolution to read more books and fewer papers, but I’d be lying– I read these last summer and never got round to writing it up.  The three are Tim Harford, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation and John Kay: Obliquity: Why our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly.

My favourite was Tim Harford, who provides an eclectic mix of incredibly readable stories and convincing argument. He shows the dangers of sclerosis with a discussion of the US military in Vietnam:

“When the US Army faced the ‘disruptive innovation’ of guerrilla warfare in Vietnam, there was great reluctance to accept that it had changed the nature of the game, making obsolete the Army’s hard-won expertise in industrial warfare. As one senior officer said, ‘I’ll be damned if I permit the United States army, its institutions, its doctrine and its traditions to be destroyed just to win this lousy war.’”

That sets the tone for a riveting account of the random-walk quality of economic history – ‘Few company bosses would care to admit it, but the market fumbles its way to success’. Toyota began as a manufacturer of looms.

He buys into markets-as-evolutionary process (see my rave reviews of Eric Beinhocker’s work on this) and sees ‘the evolutionary mix of small steps and occasional wild gambles as the best possible way to search for solutions.’ He quotes biochemist Leslie Orgel ‘Evolution is cleverer than you are’ and says ‘formal theory won’t get you nearly as far as an incredibly rapid, systematic process of trial and error.’

In this view, the failure of the Soviet Union is down to the death grip of the Planners – ‘its pathological inability to experiment’. Harford  is also a big critic of planning on issues like climate change – he sees unintended consequences, loopholes and own goals everywhere. Evolution will automatically attack the rules and find their weaknesses.

So what? ‘Adaptive organizations need to decentralize and become comfortable with the chaos of different local approaches and the awkwardness of dissent from junior staff.’ How to do this? Harford comes up with a ‘Three step recipe for successful adapting: try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; make failure survivable, because it will be common; and make sure that you know when you have failed…… distinguishing success from failure, oddly, can be the hardest task of all’

As an example, he holds up up the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as a model funder of innovation, by funding people not projects and minimising the number of strings attached. Subsequent analysis shows HHMI funding generated research that was important, unusual and influential. Unfortunately it is also a rarity – the world lacks ‘the two elements essential to encourage significant innovation in a complex world: a true openness to risky new ideas, and a willingness to put millions or even billions of dollars at risk.’

thomson coverJohnson covers some of the same ground in more opaque language, giving particular emphasis to openness and connectivity, which he argues ‘may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms… we are often better served by connecting ideas than protecting them.’ He has no time for intellectual property laws that inhibit this connectivity. He ends with some homely, and to my mind rather useful advice:

‘Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.’ Sounds like a blogger to me…..

John Kay’s is a one-idea book from a prolific popular academic and regular FT columnist.obliquityDirectness doesn’t work – it leads to the kind of modernist architectural horrors of Le Corbusier or the Soviet planning system or Pol Pot; muddling through, lateral thinking and improvisation are better. Notre Dame was built bit by bit over several centuries – no-one started out with a plan.

‘It is hard to overstate the damage done in the recent past by people who thought they knew more about the world than they really did. The managers and financiers who destroyed great businesses in the unsuccessful pursuit of shareholder value. The architects and planners who believed that buildings could be designed from first principles, that vibrant cities could be drawn on a blank sheet of paper, and that expressways should be driven through the hearts of communities. The politicians who believed they could improve public services by the imposition of multiple targets. Acknowledging the complexity of the systems for which they were responsible and the multiple needs of the individuals who operated these systems would have avoided these errors.’

The books coincide in several respects – a rejection of planning; predictability of linear chains of causation as a figment of planner’s imagination and/or a post hoc justification by those who actually followed their instincts and made sense of it afterwards; a celebration of chance and experimentation, of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’.

All three books also share a common weakness – they are largely power-free. The evolution of the economy is portrayed as a fair fight between variants (may the best mutant win), rather than taking place on a landscape heavily tilted towards those with power and control, even if they are less fit. That absence of a sense of politics and power may also explain Tim Harford’s fondness of the charter city idea – if it’s an experiment, it must be good.

A lot of this strikes me as highly relevant to development work. They argue that we should shift  to a model of experimental pilots + triage that spots the promising ones early on, and kills off the failures (a bit like our accountability programme in Tanzania), but as Steven Johnson argues in his book, we would need to learn to ‘fail faster’ – one of the mantras of the internet startup world. And NGOs just aren’t set up to fail like the private sector is: last word to Harford: ‘The acceptability, even desirability of failure lies at the heart of capitalism – the corporation, limited liability and bankruptcy laws.’

Any further thoughts on their relevance (or otherwise) to our work?

And for those of you who don’t read books, here’s a 3m presentation from Tim Harford, followed by Steven Johnson doing one of those brilliant RSAnimate videos