Innovation: W. Edwards Deming and John Keats Got It RightHow often have you heard something like this in hallway conversations: “You know, most innovation programs will fail.” It’s the kind of claim that falls easily off the tongue: Innovation — as with most organizational paradigm shifts – is one of those things that is just destined to end up on the corporate initiative trash heap.
But this does not have to be true. Two great historical figures – W. Edwards Deming and John Keats – both understood clearly what was critical to innovative thinking. They understood the challenge that innovation presents, and the trap that most leaders fall into when attempting innovation, whether in business or in poetry. That trap is mistaking the empirical for the important.
What could these two giants, separated by more than a century of time and technology, possibly share in common about innovation? The answer lies in their shared view of how we come to understand complex systems. Both understood that it is the unseen truths that matter, and that strong leaders will understand – and act on – the intangible with confidence.
Innovation can be understood – should be understood — as the “caused state of being” of systems. It is not an end state, but a state of constant flux. It is not a new product, nor any other kind of output. Innovation is not linear, anymore than it is predictable. Or certain. A state of being – sometimes called organizational culture, sometimes declared in those impenetrable corporate vision statements, and sometimes just sort of “there” – is what causes innovation.
Causing innovative states involves two simultaneous ways of thinking, two seemingly contrary points of view. On the one hand, organizations require that we do things in ways that are predictable, that allow us to “forecast” the future. On the other hand, we know that innovation, change and creativity are less predictable, less definable. The true innovator understands that both worlds are equally critical, and operates in both at the same time.
Deming claimed that his philosophy of continual improvement was in fact revolutionary: “We are here to make another world,” he declared. But his “other world” was more complex, more nuanced and less empirical than most adherents understood. His “other world” had two components. One was the world of statistics, measurement, rigor and process: an appealing array of tools that, in isolation, promised control and predictable outcomes. But there was a second dimension to Deming that was more often than not simply ignored.
This second dimension for Deming was the need for “personal transformation” and the recognition that you cannot substitute leadership with measurement. The leadership piece of Deming was critical because he understood that it was the system that caused outcomes, not individuals. And no matter how well you might measure things, you have to lead the system itself.
But “knowing” is almost always more appealing than “not knowing,” so businesses and organizations tended to co-opt the empirical side of Deming – the control side – and simply ignore the less tangible, softer side of Deming. Consequently, TQM as a “business philosophy” would usually fail, just as innovation deployments fail more often than not today.
Failure – in innovation or in any strategic approach – is not so much because of something that is wrong, but because of something that is incomplete. We read (or claim to have read!) The Wealth of Nations, but we ignore The Theory of Moral Sentiments. As a consequence we develop a dangerously incomplete picture of Adam Smith. In the same way, we can focus on empiricism – in innovation, we might focus on “output” – and live in a world that seems more predictable and measurable. But we will be operating in a world that is incomplete and prone to failure.
The lesson in Keats and Deming may be a simple one, at least insofar as innovation is concerned. First, we should focus on systems – in innovation we refer to ecosystems – and not on individuals and output. Second, we should understand that the intangible side is equally as important as the tangible. Combining these two dimensions – a deep understanding of the power of the system and a deep understanding of the power of the intangible – is what will lead us to innovative practices. It is not one or the other. It is both. At the same time.
UNC Charlotte/ Innovation: W. Edwards Deming and John Keats Got It Right (Henry Doss)
Henry Doss is a venture capitalist, student, musician and volunteer in higher education. His firm, T2VC, builds startups and the ecosystems that grow them. His university, UNC Charlotte, is a leading research institution.
- Executive-in-Residence, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at UNC Charlotte
- Chief Strategy Officer at T2VC
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