A triangle of institutional innovation

I’ve been thinking a lot about disruptive innovation, what with it being a thing that people for some reason still take seriously.

What if disruptive innovation needed to be part of a wider conception of institutional innovation? By this, I mean that although disruptive innovation has obvious flaws when viewed in isolation – not least that it isn’t a very good description of any innovation that we know about – but needs to be combined with other ideas of innovation in order to make sense.

“Sustaining innovation” has a similar issue, in that it assumes an organisation as a single organism with a common purpose, and “user innovation” – although I love it – also doesn’t really describe the way that big organisations actually change.

(as an aside, we are also talking about three different perspectives on history – disruption is recognisably ahistorical to the field of endeavour it is acting on, sustaining innovation draws on a canonical “history of the victorious” which codifies a single organisational story, whereas user innovation draws more on the “folk memory” of lived experience)

So I plotted the three as sides of a triangle, and then thought about the vertices.

We can see the effects of combining sustaining and disruptive innovation in the activities of many universities – the rise of corporatism and taking ideas from other businesses. “Lean” is a good example here that makes sense from a managerial and financial perspective but actually makes it harder for “users” (in this case, staff)

Combining sustaining and user innovations is a great way of optimising processes and practices. It makes it easier for users to keep doing the same thing by adding short-cuts based on their observed behaviour. This leads to incremental changes rather than wholesale “innovation” as externally observed, basically what happens at a sensible institution that listens to people at the “chalk face”.

Finally, combining user innovation and disruptive innovation – this made me think of the “edupunk” movement, users grabbing and using external tools with little regard for the needs of the institution (and often without the institution ever knowing): doing exciting things but storing up a whole world of interoperability problems.

So it seems to me that a truly useful innovation will draw on each of the three strands: disruptive (external), sustaining (management), and user (worker). I couldn’t find a diagram that explained this so I made one.

triangle of institutional innovation

(and if you are a director of innovation and may still be dubious, I have performed what may soon be the defining test for theories of innovation and solved for Yacht Rock.)


11 thoughts on “A triangle of institutional innovation”

  1. I really, really love the way you distill the idea of punk back into a sense of innovation as in cheap, anarchic, and just good enough. “we jam econo” —where have I seen that before? Some guy in Canada….

    1. Thanks Jim. I’m really, really careful about how I use the word “punk” these days, but it seemed to fit there (based on the specific definition you describe). “Fast, cheap and out of control”, like the man says. (Not that Brian is “The Man”, even though he runs an LMS these days…)


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