Innovation is one of those words that we all use, agree is a positive
thing and for the most part want more of. The term “innovation”
like the word “leadership”, however, seems to defy generally
accepted understanding. Most of us lack a shared interpretation
of what we mean or what we are observing when we use the terms.
Moreover, we lack practices for deliberately and consistently producing
whatever is meant or whatever it is that we are looking for from
“leadership and innovation”. This is evident in the
fact that in spite of thousands of books on these subjects, reading
and understanding the books doesn’t enable us to be leaders
or to be innovative.
These terms are closely related. Leadership always has some focus
on bringing about a desired future. We would not normally consider
a spectator of the status quo to be a leader. The term innovation
also suggests some break with the “norm” or the status
quo. I am suggesting that an “innovator” and a “leader”
are cut from the same cloth, that these terms are distinguishing
different aspects of the same phenomenon.
This paper is the first of a series of essays that are intended
to open possibilities for developing leadership…to provide
pathways for action for those who are dissatisfied with the status
quo and are attempting to either improve on existing processes or
perhaps accomplish breakthrough results.
<p >To begin, we need to make a number of distinctions. There are obvious
distinctions for example between: the innovator (who), an innovation
(what) and the process of innovating (how). This paper’s intent
is to illuminate and inquire into the phenomenon of innovation (and
leadership) prior to action and before history judges an
accomplishment as innovative or declares a person to be a leader.
The focus here will be on the innovator and the context or ‘way
of being’ of the innovator. My thesis is that a competency
for innovation is a natural by-product of different ways of relating
to the world… the context in which we relate to circumstances
and change. We will also distinguish between innovation and art.
Both involve creativity and these terms are often used interchangeably.
Finally, we want to distinguish the kind of simple change that is
a variation of what already exists from the kind of profound change
that alters the scope of what is possible.
The dictionary’s primary definition for innovation is simply
“making change”. This view this is incomplete however,
and becomes a distinction without a difference, because change is
happening all the time whether people do anything or not. We do
not consider a random event, insight or an accident to be an innovation,
although what one can observe and do in the context of a novel occurrence
or insight might very well lead to innovation. For example, all
of us have had “big ideas” from time to time and done
nothing about them only to learn later that someone has succeeded
in bringing about exactly what we had imagined. This is what might
distinguish a leader/innovator from a dreamer.
A potentially more powerful way to think of innovation is that
it means: intentionally “bringing into existence”
something new that can be sustained and repeated and which has some
value or utility. That is, innovation is always related
to some practical “in-the-world” value…. it is about
making new tools, products or processes….bringing forth something
“new” which allows human beings to accomplish something
they were not able to accomplish previously.
For example, art is always creative and may have value to its consumers,
but requires no utility to be art. Art might be seen as the artist’s
self-expression or experience of their world. Innovation on the
other hand must allow for something else, some possibility or accomplishment
or value beyond the innovation itself. If someone comes up with
a new hammer that does what our existing hammers do, then that is
a design change and design is an “art”. When someone creates
a new kind of hammer, however, such as a “nail gun” or
a new method for hammering, then we can distinguish that as innovation.
In this sense, we can also see that we can innovate within an art
form, such as painting with acrylic at one point allowed artists
to create effects that were not possible with traditional oils.
When we create a new tool we are innovating. When we are not innovating
we are the tool or the “tool” is an extension of us. For
example, the typewriter was an innovation in writing. At some moment,
the typewriter becomes transparent (to both the typist and those
concerned with what is being typed) and we simply have a typist
typing. The tool appears again only when there is a breakdown or
it no longer serves its purpose. I am claiming that our relationship
to the circumstances, especially when there are breakdowns, is the
primary factor in determining whether we respond as leaders and
innovate or simply resist or cope with what is happening.
Whether we are speaking about leadership or innovation our concern
is almost always about accomplishing some sustainable change whether
large or small. Change can occur gradually and in small increments
such as making continuous improvement to an existing process or
product. Change may also occur as a breakthrough such as some unprecedented
action or result that opens possibilities for new occurrence. While
leaders and innovators participate in both kinds of change, I distinguish
leadership as always occurring in a context of some intention to
create a breakthrough….to break with the status quo. A one-time
unique event is not an innovation. For an occurrence to be a breakthrough
it must alter, change, illuminate or modify the existing structure(s)
within which the innovation is occurring. In other words we might
say that this kind of innovation is the kind of action or outcome
that alters the context, paradigm or frame of reference of the innovator
and those who have a stake in the innovation. We conclude that innovation
changes the innovator and the space of possibilities available for
everyone. Leadership is about creating what does not exist….
bringing forth something which was previously “not real”,
or not available within an historical context. Leadership isn’t
just about what happens within boundaries, it transforms our relationship
with boundaries and circumstance.
<p >As previously noted, change is happening all the time. To observe
a change we must be comparing our perception of how things appear
now with how we remember them from before….change is an assessment
or an assertion that something is different than it was. The timeframe
for comparison may vary. For example, technology has changed the
way we do our work compared to ten or fifteen years ago, it probably
hasn’t changed much in how we work today as compared to yesterday.
By the same token, the resources we have to work with have undoubtedly
changed from yesterday. At a molecular and biological level, our
bodies are changing with each breath we take. If we wish to develop
a rigorous methodology for deliberate and intentional innovation
and leadership, we need begin with the question: “how do we
relate to our circumstances and change?”
Relationship to Circumstance and Change
<p >I distinguish six different ways we can relate to our circumstance
and the changes which are occurring all the time. I claim that the
way we relate to our circumstances becomes the foundation for our
being leaders and opens or closes possibilities and opportunities
for innovating. If we consider that change is a constant and always
occurring whether we know it or not, then we might also say these
six ways of relating to the circumstances are also ways we relate
to the world and become the contexts within which we deal with everyday
life. These should not be considered as progressive steps in a process.
Rather, these are different “states of being” or contexts
available to every human being, at every moment, to differing degrees
depending upon our commitments, concerns and competence in various
domains of action.<blockquote >
RESISTANCE – Opposition to circumstance
Probably the most common way we relate to change is to resist
it. To resist means to stand apart from whatever one is resisting
and judge it as “not being as it should be”.
We resist in many ways, we can resist by simply disagreeing with
a new policy or by analyzing something over and over again, or
by playing devil’s advocate with no ownership of the issue.
Resistance can be overt or covert…. sometimes we can resist
by agreeing with someone and then gossiping when the person isn’t
around. We can procrastinate, we can argue, we can rationalize
or even sabotage a leadership initiative simply by ignoring it
and waiting for the next change to come along.
Whatever strategies or patterns for resistance we have, whether
overt or covert, whether conscious or unconscious, whether active
or passive they have three things in common:
First, all forms of resistance are “counter-innovative”
and thwart human intentionality to create change. Any effort spent
in opposing what is occurring moment to moment will blind us to
possibility. Further, resistance gives power to the status quo
or cultural inertia which, by its nature, will persist. This is
reflected in the often quoted maxim, ‘the more things change
the more they say the same’.
Secondly, all resistance is rooted in the past and is grounded
in a negative mood/attitude and assessment of ‘the way it
is’…a judgment that things ‘should be’
different than they are. Our commitments and actions are organized
by what we see as feasible and that we know how to do. At best,
this will lead to finding effective ways to cope and at worst
will lead to a state of chronic suffering and eventually to resignation.
Thirdly, to resist implies that there is some Thing “there”
to resist which essentially objectifies our world including ourselves
and other people, turning us into objects in an objective world.
This reduces us to either being victims of whatever it is we are
resisting and/or encourages a “spectator” relationship
with the circumstances. This means we no longer participate in
creating the future, and become trapped in a worldview that destroys
possibility and power. In this state, innovation is a rarity and
an ideal. When innovation does happen it is usually attributed
to some “special-ness” of the innovator or more often
explained as an anomaly that leaves us unaffected, untouched and
not responsible for the change.
<p >“Leadership” in this context will involve ‘opposition’
to the circumstance and for the most part will prove ineffective
to the point of becoming part of the problem. For example, in
most organizational or cultural “change” initiatives,
the prevailing rational is that the status quo is “broken”
and needs to be fixed. The leadership is resisting the “way
it is” and in a well meaning way are attempting to “fix
it”. The problem is that these initiatives are rarely effective
because everything being done to change something is pushing against
(resisting) what is already going on. This is how many issues
persist even when there is widespread agreement that something
should change. Essentially the proponents and opponents to a leadership
initiative are operating in the same context.
COPING – Positive reaction to circumstances
Coping is also rooted in a view that circumstances are objective
and we must somehow adjust our commitments and actions to match
what the circumstances allow. Coping might be viewed as a positive
alternative to resistance in which one works within the circumstances
effectively. Energy that was previously expended in resisting
is redirected to problem-solving and designing ways to overcome
barriers to accomplishing one’s intention. In this sense
coping is also “counter-innovative” as a relationship
to change, however there is one big difference…. specifically,
there are many innovations that are conceived as tools or strategies
for more effective coping. In other words, in a circumstantially
determined view of reality, coping can drive innovation, but only
as a RE-ACTION to the circumstances, not as an intentional force
in creating new circumstances.
For example, “organized labor” was invented as a
re-action to perceived misuse and abuse of power by owners and
managers in the early part of the 20th century and has become
an integral aspect of how work is accomplished.. In other words,
the political-economic “institution” of organized labor
was a way for workers to cope with their circumstances. While
we can observe that this “innovation” has produced a
lot of value and benefit for workers over the years, it can also
be argued that it has done little to build or address the underlying
issues of trust and allocation of perceived power in organizational
hierarchies. In effect, the mechanism for coping reinforced and
even institutionalized the problem. Further, we can argue that
successful coping solutions will often thwart and even undermine
attempts at further innovations. In the above example, labor organizations
have generally attempted to block various proposed innovations
in management such as cross-functional training, incentive compensation
packages, self-managing teams and commitment-based management.
<p >Leadership in this context is often facilitative and oriented
toward reasonable expectations and interpretations of what is
possible and not possible. In a coping context, leaders will typically
be arguing for and justifying whatever limitation seem to exist
and encouraging “work around” or “in spite of”
strategies for getting things done. While this and be positive
and produce results, the leader in this case become a well meaning
and unwitting “co-conspirator” for individual and organizational
RESPONDING – Owning the circumstances
To respond, means to freely choose action, given the circumstances.
To respond requires a different relationship to the circumstance
in which one considers that the circumstances are subordinate
to the actions of the individual. In other words, to respond requires
that one view him/herself as responsible, as owning, as being
senior to whatever circumstance is occurring. The word, responsibility
can actually be seen as “the ability to respond”…
In responding, we see a human being as having insights and making
choices in relationship to objective circumstances but not limited
or defined by them. When we are responding we are beginning to
innovate to the extent we: a) have some intention or commitment,
b) are owning and not ‘re-acting’ to circumstances,
and c) are bringing something new into existence which whether
small or large has value/utility and can be sustained/replicated
in the future.
For example, one of the most basic organizational issues is the
common “us versus them” conversation. In this structure,
we complain is that “they” are a problem. The “they”
might be upper management, or the quality control group, or the
salespeople or the government. The underlying structure of the
conversation is that someone “outside” is causing a
problem for me/us.
To respond requires that we acknowledge that whoever “they”
are is occurring within our interpretation of the world. Our choices
and actions are never limited or determined by ‘them”
or the circumstances unless we believe that we have no power or
choice in the matter… what limits us is part of our interpretation.
We are never in fact, victims of our circumstances, although in
many instances it can seem so and our suffering when this is the
case can be very “real”.
Secondly, to respond we must grant “them” the freedom
to choose…autonomy as individuals…grant them the legitimacy
of their view even if we disagree.
Otherwise we will be reacting to what we perceive they are doing
and therefore have limited action and become part of a larger
pattern of resistance that reinforces “their” behavior.
In a posture of resistance, at best we may “win” in
a dispute by dominating rather than innovating. At worst we become
resigned and simply “put up with” the status quo.
To determine whether we are responding or reacting we can ask,
“for the sake of what are we responding”? If there
is no intention or commitment behind our actions, then our actions
are essentially automatic and thoughtless. If we are responsible
for our circumstances and intentional in our responses, when we
become dissatisfied, innovating comes naturally.
<p >Leaders who are responsive rather than reactive are not blind
to problems or to people’s concerns, but are organizing
their actions based on something else. They are not attempting
to “fix” people or simply solve problems but keep their
eye on the intended outcomes or purposes for which they are working.
For example, in the movie Apollo 13, there is a moment when a
technical crisis threatens the lives of the astronauts. All technical
options have been exhausted and there is no possibility they will
survive. The “leader” in the film throws down a pile
of all the “stuff” in the space capsule and makes an
unreasonable demand for the engineers to “create” a
solution where none exists. This response could not have happened
if the leader had believed that the circumstances were fixed.
CHOOSING – Accepting the circumstances
To choose is a step beyond owning and responding freely to circumstances.
To choose implies a choice about the circumstances to which one
is responding. The idea of choice is synonymous with the idea
of acceptance where we acknowledge not only that things are the
way they are, but that they should be the way they are…
even when the circumstances are not what we would wish and may
be assessed as very negative. This is a very different state of
relating than either succumbing or rationalizing that one can’t
help the way things are. This state is to embrace the change and
This notion is very basic to many spiritual disciplines in both
the East and the West where we can experience enormous freedom
when we acknowledge that “reality” is happening regardless
of our point of view or understanding. In fact, one can even at
some point notice that by the time our brains can “think”
about what is happening in the moment, the moment is already past.
Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now shows that
to choose is to learn to live in the present and to be present
to whatever is happening. This experience is familiar to almost
anyone who has participated in sports and been in “the zone”,
or to people in the performing arts who have transcended thinking
about or controlling a performance and simply expressed himself
or herself fully.
In this state of choosing or ‘being present’ one
becomes a different observer. A person can observe all sorts of
possibilities and choices that otherwise would remain buried in
the circumstances. This is a state in which innovation is natural
and effortless, even obvious. It is important to note however,
that this is also a state in which the circumstances are still
“out there” and the observer is still relating to the
world as something separate and distinct from the observer.
<p >This is the state where leadership begins to become an increasingly
creative process. This is also where we can observe a paradox
between fully accepting the way things are without any resistance
whatsoever and simultaneously creating a commitment to a larger
possibility. In this context it is obvious that possibilities
are by definition created and leadership is about creating vision
and possibility in relationship with other human beings.
BRINGING FORTH – Creating the circumstances
This way of relating to the world and to circumstances is the
state that we normally associate with truly “creative”
people. What I wish to distinguish here is that the ability to
create something is not a “gift” that a few especially
endowed people have inherited. While it is true that some people
come by this capacity “naturally”, it is a learnable
way of relating to the world and the creative expressions which
it makes available begin to approach what we earlier distinguished
as breakthroughs. To “bring forth” means to not only
to choose a circumstance that is already occurring, but begin
to relate to the world “as if” we are creating the circumstances
This is not necessarily a strange or metaphysical notion. We
have known in the field of quantum mechanics for some time that
everything we perceive is constantly being changed in the process
of being perceived. The noted physicist John Wheeler in an interview
with Discovery Magazine (June 2002) has even suggested that even
the fact of the existence of an objective universe itself might
be viewed as a product of our capacity to consciously observe
and distinguish a world that only appears separate from us.
In an organizational context for example, most of us have experienced
or witnessed moments of sudden and often profound insight into
the nature of a situation or circumstance and have formulated
what seem to be (and often are) genuinely original ideas or solutions.
In retrospect these innovations or inventions can be seen as:
a) unpredictable, b) require challenging or changing some underlying
belief or assumption about what is and is not possible, and c)
generally appear obvious after the fact. A classic example is
the story from the 3M Corporation about the invention of the POST
IT that was created when a project looking for stronger glue
failed. The inventor “brought forth” a new interpretation
of what was wanted and needed (removable notes) and which bad
glue could provide.
The point is that this insight required a different order of
creative thinking outside conventional and reasonable frames of
reference….what is usually meant by “outside the box”
thinking. The question here is can anyone learn to be creative
simply by beginning to change how he or she relates to the circumstances?
I believe that this is possible and in fact is how most people
develop what might be described as creative talent. To do so,
however, requires that we let go of our notion that we are objects
in an objective world and adopt a worldview in which we are individually
and collectively creating the circumstances that we are observing.
Leaders who “bring forth” are those we normally consider
to be ‘visionary’ and charismatic and who are often
seen as gifted in their capacity to keep moving forward and creating
openings for action regardless of the circumstances. In Shakespeare’s
Henry V, the King gives an impassioned speech to his soldiers
in the face of insurmountable odds. In doing so, he not only creates
a possibility where none exists, but inspires his army to victory.
For the leader who relates to the world in this way, a vision
is not a big goal or picture of the future, but a powerful ground
of being from which to create reality.
MASTERY – Creating the Context for Change
“To create” here means to distinguish the rare ability
that a few people have demonstrated to invent entirely new fields
of inquiry. These people are creating new domains, new openings,
and new possibilities for others to explore and innovate. This
is working at a different level and is a very distinct way of
relating to circumstances in which the “creator” is
the author of the context in which the creator is relating. To
create a context means to be responsible not only for what is
being perceived, not only for one’s responses, not only
for a generative relationship to the circumstances, but to be
responsible for creating the background or space within which
the circumstances appear.
“Mastery” of anything from art to penmanship is
ultimately mastery of oneself and “who one is being”
in a situation and in relationship to the world. Hence, to become
a master of innovation, a person must own both what is happening
as well as what isn’t happening…. to be present to
both “what is” as well as to the cognitive and transparent
boundaries that define our perceivable reality.
In 1980 a man named Fernando Flores wrote a PhD thesis titled
“Management and Communication in the Office of the Future”.
(UC Berkley, 1980). In his thesis he asked the simple question,
“What is action for a manager”. His thesis opened
an entirely new view of management as a phenomenon that happens
in conversations and that action occurs as “speaking and
listening”. His work has transformed much contemporary thinking
about how coordination occurs in organizations and has impacted
thinking and practices in the fields of information technology,
artificial intelligence, health care, international relations
and development of leaders among others. Where this will go remains
to be seen, but his work illustrates creating a new “meta-paradigm”
for observing, not simply making different observations in the
same paradigm. When one is the creator of the paradigm or context,
then we can begin to consider that we are in fact creating and
mastering our circumstances.
<p >Finally, leadership in a context of Mastery is often very modest
and may seem effortless or so natural as to seem inconsequential
at the time. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, was a gentle man who
used no force, and yet showed us how not resisting can be a powerful
force for change. His Mastery did not even seem to be leadership
for most of his career and yet from the beginning he was pursing
the creation of a new reality. In addition, leaders who live and
work in this context are constantly inventing or creating their
experience….in this sense they are always beginners….learning
and creating in each moment.
Innovation happens at different levels from modest improvements
on an existing product or process to dramatic and even historically
significant breakthroughs in how we relate to the world. In all
cases, the capacity to innovate will be a function of our commitments
and concerns…what we want to accomplish and our relationship
with the circumstances we perceive we are in. If we are resisting
or coping, we see no innovation and whatever change we
generate will be as a reaction to the circumstances and part of
the process by which those circumstances persist. When we are
responding or choosing we are in a position to innovate
and will do so naturally and consistently as a function of what
we observe to be possible or what we observe is missing in our perspective
of the world. Change based on this view is likely to be an improvement
on what already exists. When we are bringing forth or creating
we are not only in a position to innovate but are predisposed to
do so. Further, in these ways of relating to circumstances, we have
few if any limitations on what we can imagine and generate…we
are likely to be generating breakthroughs or even creating entirely
new spheres of possibility.
I consider leaders and innovators as those who are concerned with
and competent at bringing “new realities” into existence.
I consider innovating to be a primary element in the process of
leading and I see innovations as examples of leadership results
<p >The following is a table that summarizes the six ways of relating to change associated with different leadership models, intentions and views of circumstances.