Innovation and the power of re-framing

smart systems

This post links a number of things I’ve been thinking about recently. The one thing I wrestle with is the balance between paying attention to the emerging present and future with an open mind, while at the same time recognising past knowledge and insight that continue to be highly relevant. It seems to me that re-framing – seeing things differently – is a great way to integrate past and present.

Diffusion is social

I mused in Learning as a Social Process about how new working practices spread from person to person as in an epidemic. But diffusion will only happen if resistance can be overcome. The junior nurse referred to in the post managed to influence a more senior nurse to change her behaviour – overcoming her initial resistance – by her friendly, non-blame approach.

What if it’s not as easy as that? What if we feel that our very sense of identity is under threat? Friendly chats about your children over cups of tea probably aren’t going to cut it.

Different rates of diffusion

This thought is taking me back to another recent post, Taking Stock of the Future of Work where I was thinking about why many of the profound insights about organising for innovation and knowledge sharing – which was the subject of my doctoral research almost twenty years ago – have failed to take root outside of manufacturing. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. This is what I said in the post:

“Control has been a management obsession for decades. I was reminded of it once more listening to this highly-recommended interview with Eric Trist talking about socio-technical approaches to organising work in British coal mines after the Second World War – innovations involving task variety, multi-skilling and autonomy in self-managing.

Despite improved productivity and increased job satisfaction from self-management and “not having a boss immediately at their backs every five seconds”, Trist says that innovations in working practices did not diffuse because they challenged management power; many managers wanted detailed control and were prepared to sacrifice improved performance to retain it. It wasn’t only management – unions also resisted the innovations.”


Now my mind goes bouncing back to the Learning is Social post, which itself was inspired by reading Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article, Slow Ideas: Some innovations spread fast. How do you speed the ones that don’t. He compares the rapid spread of anesthesia to the slow diffusion of antiseptics. Despite evidence about the effectiveness of antiseptics being published in The Lancet in 1867, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that things began to change:

“A few pioneering Germans, however, seized on the idea of the surgeon as scientist. They traded in their (blood-slick, viscera-encrusted) black coats for pristine laboratory whites, refashioned their operating rooms to achieve the exacting sterility of a bacteriological lab, and embraced anatomic precision over speed.

The key message to teach surgeons, it turned out, was not how to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist.”

And there you have it. Progress made because surgeons began to see themselves differently – no longer macho butchers whose filthy, blood and viscera-stained garments were their badges of honour. The absolute and complete opposite image now applied – surgeons displaying their knowledge of the latest scientific understanding of germ-control by wearing spotless garments.

This is a powerful metaphor for me. I can’t help seeing control-obsessed managers as the macho butchers. What could be the equivalent of white laboratory coats? Why social technologies of course – blogs, Twitter Google Hangouts, learning communities and all the rest, where transparency, caring, listening, asking and knowing what people need from performance cultures and performance environments are on display for all to see.

Re-framing identity

Here’s a true story. My husband designs pipelines and manifolds that sit on the sea bed. He says that engineering is a job with honour, and I could not agree more with him. He’s proud of the fact that what he does contributes to gas and oil being brought out of the ground.

When I met him nineteen years ago, he was teaching himself 3D CAD (computer aided design). One day shortly after meeting him, he came home with a large drawing of a manifold. He told me that it was a ‘photograph’ of what the finished item was going to look like  that it didn’t yet exist except in his head and in the heads of his engineering colleagues.

If I could have my time again I would be an engineer. I was so impressed by what I was looking at. In the years that followed, he taught himself animation and used movement to visualise how things would work. For example, he used to add wee divers swimming past structures to illustrate scale. So you can see that by the time we met, he was not only accepting of CAD technology but embraced it enthusiastically.

But that was not always the case. He started his career as a draughtsman, drawing by hand at the drawing board. Back then it was the quality of his drawing skills that was the source of his identity. So he wasn’t best pleased when 2D CAD appeared – he saw this technology as undermining his skills.

Things changed when 3D CAD came along. He realised that he was no longer a draughtsman but an engineering designer and communicator. He had re-framed his identity. And while he had great pride in what he did, draughtsmen were seen as low down the professional food chain. Essential but lowly. Now he was state-of-the art – and very much in demand.

His engineer colleagues couldn’t wait to show off his skills to clients and potential clients. Not only did his presentations look super-cool but the animated 3D models he was building meant that it was easy to change parameters and demonstrate different possibilities / options in designing a structure.

Re-framing roles and sources of power

I had intended to add some thoughts and re-framing roles (middle managers in particular) and re-framing sources of power – knowledge is power, now knowledge shared is power. How? Engage people in challenging conversations, give them the opportunity to have an ‘aha’ moment of realisation like my husband had.

But I’ve run out of time. No doubt I’ll get inspiration at the Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Paris tomorrow. I’m sure I will. I might come back to re-framing roles and sources of power in the next post.

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