For those who don’t know, I did my bachelors in Animal Sciences and am currently enrolled for the masters of Development and Rural Innovation. As we call it in Wageningen, the shift from life sciences to social sciences. And it wasn’t the first time I had to explain my choice. Well to be honest, it wasn’t my first choice but it sure was the best I ever made. Why, because I was troubled by some of the techniques we learned in class on for example genetics. There is this one particular class that I will never forget, it was about the transport of animal embryos to the other side of the ocean in order to increase litter sizes in pigs there. At that very specific moment I thought how that could work out, because there are so many other elements that are of importance if you consider new innovation in whatever kind of field. And on that very moment I decided I wanted to know more about that, the context of an innovation.
However, almost a year into my MSc I know that it is not only the context of an innovation. This assumes that one only needs to think of something that is effective and that can be implemented, implement it and then see what happens. While in theory this might be the case in practice it is a bit more different. Why? Because in innovation we assume, or rather we pursue, change in a certain system. Whether that is the litter size of pigs, the increase of crop yield or the possibility for children to learn to work with computers. However change is broader than just the change that you are making. In the natural sciences we often talk about ceteris paribus, or the situation in which all other factors stay the same, but in practice again this is impossible. Because change is not only the planned change that we want to achieve with our innovation, it is also the unplanned consequences that come along. Which means that the environment that we have to take into account when making sure our innovation will work, changes while the innovation starts to work out its change. this creates a different environment and might therefore create different effects. Sometimes these effects could have been noted before, but we are too focused on other problems, namely the ones we’re planning to solve, to see them.
About three years ago I applied for some kind of business course but unfortunately was not selected. For my efforts I got a code to participate in a simulation game of flower dealers in the Netherlands. I paired up with two students from the University of Eindhoven and we met twice in person and the rest over Skype to in total make 4 decisions on what actions we would undertake for our business. The goal was simple, earn as much money if you can by buying and selling the right flowers at the right time. But however hard we tried, it did not work. Why? Because we were focussed on earning money, we made plans for the upcoming weeks and bought plants in an economically sense way. However we forgot that there are many more elements to take into account. We were not a monopoly, there were problems like the total availability of flowers but also more unexpected plagues or disinterest of the potential buyers to buy from us. It is natural for humans to be very focussed on a goal, but in doing so we lose track of other opportunities, dangers and challenges that we have to deal with as well. All the little things that we missed added up to us ending somewhere at the bottom of the ranking, disillusioned and severely disappointed with our own capabilities.
We don’t act in a vacuum but there are different social actors involved in the processes of change that we initiate. This is important because change can happen on different levels at the same time. As I already described above change can happen through events by which new connections arise that change the environment in which we are acting. But also social interaction can cause change, not by creating networks only but also by using language. Words develop over time because new interpretations are given through new contexts which then again create new contexts. These two forms assume that you have to diverge from the path everyone else is walking to create change but nothing is less true. Also by simply following the rules and by following the practices, change can happen.
So if we have to put that into a more practical way of working, how can we see that? Let’s take the example of companies. First because they have to make decisions all the time and thereby have to take into account their surroundings and secondly because the environments of companies are rapidly changing, especially in current times with internationalization and digitalization. Having been in the Student Council of our university, the closest thing in my reference to a company, I would assume companies to have a strategy and a goal and to pursue both by making decision in line with both of these. However, taking into account the above it is very likely that many decisions might fail in the sense that they have a different outcome because there are different changes happening than anticipated on. On the other hand if the company would be a sort of loose canon that just randomly takes decisions, it is bound to fail as a company because it can not live up to the expectations of stakeholders and stockholders thereby losing their business.
In order to anticipate on change, both planned and unplanned, companies then have to be flexible but steering. First of all, there have to be certain rules. A company is not run by one man but people have to cooperate and are dependent of each other, furthermore the business should have somewhere to go as a whole so there need to be order-generating rules. But if a company wants to survive in the storm outside of its walls, the environment in which the business is run. The major contact with this environment is through its employees. This means that the order-generating rules should also support innovation through for example democracy or at least some kind of power equalization. If not, there is no room for innovation an companies become rigid, distinct from their surroundings and can therefore no longer survive. On the other hand the innovations that happen inside of a company cannot be loose objects of themselves, they have to fulfill a role within the company and serve the process that is going on. In combination with the idea of power equalization one could maybe best refer to that by naming it self-organization. Not for the whole organization but for teams or groups of employees. Of course dependent of how big the company is. Taking into account this analysis it leaves us actually with not so much. You need some ground rules for the company to create order, but for the rest it should be organized as it goes. It assumes that companies need to be on the edge of chaos. They should neither be in chaos or organized but go with the flow of change, initiatives and opportunities.
Burnes, B. (2005). Complexity theories and organizational change. In The International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol. 7, Issue 2, 73-90.
Dörner, D. (1997). The Logic of Failure. Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations. New York, Metropolitan Books, 1-37.
Van Woerkum, C., N. Aarts & A. van Herzele (2011). Changed planning for planned and unplanned change. Planning Theory, 10/2, 144-160.