Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#20) — Work on the system, not on ‘things’

Mark Storm
6 min readJul 16, 2018
HALO by Brighton-based artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt (known as Semiconductor) is an immersive response to the Large Hadron Collider for the Audemars Piguet Art Commission: Complexity & Precision. It surrounds visitors with millions of data points collected by the world’s largest and most powerful experiment, the Large Hadron Collider. Via Hole & Corner

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

Work on the system, not on ‘things’

“Another way of approaching the thing is to consider it unnamed, unnameable.” – The French essayist and poet Francis Ponge (1899–1988)

I may as well begin with a confession. In 2011, I co-founded an innovation consultancy named Bring in the elephants. Our aim was to help established companies innovate with greater speed and impact. We already disbanded at the end of 2014. We didn’t lack success but we all felt innovation had taken a wrong turn. More and more, companies used their innovation endeavours to attract and manage ‘talent.’ As a result, many of the corporate innovation labs we designed were overflowing with young aspiring professionals for whom participation was an opportunity to make themselves seen and heard, often for the very first time. It had very little to do with creating value and meaning, other than for themselves and the organisation’s HR department. It was, as Steven Blank would call it, ‘innovation theatre.’

But something else was going on as well. Because these young professionals were often new to the company and its industry, they didn’t share its legacy. Neither did they have sufficient understanding of the company’s present. As a consequence, most of the ‘things’ that came out of these labs had no rooting in ‘past and present.’ This was actually seen as a good thing because, by then, companies had fallen for Silicon Valley’s ‘move fast & break things’ ideology and the assumption that only ‘twenty-somethings’ can innovate. By copying Silicon Valley’s culture and attitude towards innovation, they actually thought they were doing the right thing. And to be honest, so were we at Bring in the elephants. (End of confession.)

Gradually, however, we started to realise that there were severe issues with this approach. First, a lack of (cognitive) diversity in the actual innovation labs, and second, the missing link between ‘the old’ and ‘the new’ — between the side of the business where the money was actually being made and the isolated lab where a handful of hopefuls where trying to ‘reinvent the future.’

Some of us were not that bothered. ‘Innovation’ had become an industry and we were simply part of that. But I, for one, had founded Bring in the elephants to create value and meaning, not for aspiring young ‘careerists’ but for people outside of the company — clients, customers, users, even society.

Since we disbanded, late 2014, the number of innovation labs, accelerators, hackathons and ‘things like that’ has only grown, yet the value they create is still minimal. It’s mostly ‘new things.’ There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. If a company wants to maintain its relevance over time, the creation of new or better ‘things’ is a necessity. We used to call this ‘product development’ but the term ‘innovation’ seems to have taken over and also therein lies a huge problem. By naming the creation of new or better ‘things’ innovation, we are missing something fundamental, namely that innovation is not something that can be designed. It is something that happens, often for unexpected and undesigned reasons.

Take Apple’s iPod, which put “1,000 Songs in Your Pocket.” What actually was the innovation? Was it the device (the ‘thing’) or its business model (let’s call it the ‘canvas’) or was it the way in which it changed how people came to ‘use’ music? The iPod was certainly a new ‘thing’ and so was its business model, but the real ‘innovation’ was the change in people’s behaviour towards music — a change that reached far beyond the actual ‘thing’ and or ‘canvas.’ The iPhone has had a similar effect. Both were catalysts for innovation, not the innovation in and of itself.

“Visitors are invited to sit and lie down, surrounded by millions of data points collected by the world’s largest and most powerful experiment, the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator consisting of a 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets. Reminiscent of gazing at star fields, the experience blends the technological and the sublime.” Via Audemars Piguet

Now you could argue that I am splitting hairs or that the behavioural change would never have occurred without the ‘thing’ or the ‘canvas,’ which is true, of course. But I believe that zooming out and taking this broader perspective is crucial for our understanding of innovation. You can design new ‘things’ and even ‘canvasses’ but you can’t ‘design (think)’ behavioural change. Sure, you can try to steer towards such change through, e.g., marketing or try to change people’s habits and behaviours by building in ‘addictive’ features, but there is still a tremendous amount of ‘luck’ and, from a company’s perspective, also risk involved. Context is crucial.

If companies were to better understand this broader, contextual view, they could shift their thinking from ‘innovation’ as a potential outcome to ‘experimentation’ as way of working with a highly unpredictable outcome. You can, of course, still organise experimentation in isolated pockets, like innovation labs, but I would argue that it is something you need to ‘organise’ across the entire organisation.

Companies should steer away from the ‘innovation industry,’ which primarily adds value to people working within that industry, and move towards working on ‘the system’ — on how people work, learn and create value together, right across the entire organisation. Instead of putting all their eggs into one single ‘innovation basket,’ and hope for the best, they need to shift their attention to ‘the whole.’

So let’s stop copying Silicon Valley — after all, they are perfectly capable of doing that themselves — and start working on the ‘thing’ that really matters: changing the system. It is hard work and it may take a lifetime but it will have a far bigger impact than any accidental innovation lab or accelerator can ever have. Bon voyage…

“The human brain is a physical mechanism for storing, retrieving, and re-storing again, each special-case experience. The experience is often a packaged concept.” — Richard Buckminster Fuller, a man of timeless wisdom

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Elizabeth — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, ‘Call me Trim Tab.’

The truth is that you get the low pressure to do things, rather than getting on the other side and trying to push the bow of the ship around. And you build that low pressure by getting rid of a little nonsense, getting rid of things that don’t work and aren’t true until you start to get that trim-tab motion. It works every time. That’s the grand strategy you’re going for. So I’m positive that what you do with yourself, just the little things you do yourself, these are the things that count. To be a real trim tab, you’ve got to start with yourself, and soon you’ll feel that low pressure, and suddenly things begin to work in a beautiful way. Of course, they happen only when you’re dealing with really great integrity.” — R. Buckminster ‘Bucky’ Fuller



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought