Why you have to be a conservative to innovate and (really) change the world

We often think that to innovate, we must start from scratch. Yet, all innovators are “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants”, as the philosopher Bernard de Chartres said. Far from refusing reality, let alone ignoring it, innovators start by accepting it, and then transforming it.

“The less intelligence adheres to reality, the more it dreams of revolution” -Raymond Aron

When I run a seminar on innovation, I always start with the same question: “How do you think great innovations are born?” And every time, I get basically the same answer: “A visionary entrepreneur has a great idea, mobilizes resources from investors, and implements his or her idea to change the world.” For years I’ve been asking this question, and for years I’ve gotten the same answer. And for years I spend the rest of the seminar trying to dismantle that belief.

Because a breakthrough innovation is not a sudden “big bang”. James Watt did not invent the steam engine by himself in a flash of genius when he got out of his shower. He made a decisive contribution to a question on which great inventors and scientists had already been working for many years.

The pre-eminence of a “big bang” model is problematic. By setting the bar so high, by making people believe, in essence, that innovating necessarily means creating the next Facebook or Tesla, this romantic, idealistic vision leads either to renunciation in the face of the unattainable scale of the task (disguised behind largely cosmetic initiatives), or to a headlong rush into “big projects” that most of the time lead nowhere. An executive of a large company was telling me recently that his excom was so obsessed with disruptive innovation, conceived as necessarily “big”, that he could no longer propose any small project: “At less than one billion, no project interests them”, he added, and lamented that as a result, many smaller opportunities are ignored, and thus left to the competition. Thinking big about change, with a fixed idea a priori, most often prevents yourself from making it happen.

Change, even disruptive, is incremental

The progressive nature of change, which has been observed historically, is underlined in entrepreneurship by the theory of effectuation developed over the last twenty years by the researcher Saras Sarasvathy. Based on a careful observation of how entrepreneurs create new products, new businesses, and new markets, Sarasvathy highlighted five principles of action. First principle: do with what you have on hand. This is a principle of reality directly opposed to idealism, which consists in crying over what one would like to have, or demanding what should be. Second principle: act small, in affordable loss. This underlies the incrementalism of most innovations, as opposed to the revolutionary big bang that is always put forward. Third principle: co-construct the future. Far from that of the visionary who splits the sea in two and shows the way to the people, the vision of the entrepreneur defended here is that of one who patiently weaves the threads of his project through compromises with committed stakeholders. This principle underlines the intrinsically social nature of innovation and of change in general, but above all the need for a posture of respect for the other stakeholders, far from the much-vaunted “leader-follower” asymmetry. Fourth principle: Take advantage of surprises. It is about accepting that the future is not already written, nor even predictable, but that it is built by our individual actions.

These principles correspond to an epistemic modesty, a humility about the social process which does not, however, prevent, and which on the contrary even allows, profound change, as our industrial civilization testifies. It is from reality that entrepreneurs start to change the world, and they do so step by step.

This observation of incremental change, which builds its action on that of others, is not limited to the business world. Big political victories are years in the making. Any change – be it social, economic, industrial, artistic, scientific, or political – is above all a transformation of what already exists, capitalizing on what was done by predecessors.

Accepting reality

This implies accepting reality, to be part of history without judging the past. The recognition of what exists, its acceptance not to remain a prisoner of it, but to start from a solid base, is the practical and moral imperative stated by Saul Alinsky, an American sociologist and civil rights activist, as early as the 1940s. He wrote, “As an organizer, I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not weaken our desire to transform it into what we believe it should be.”

This acceptance of reality is also the credo of conservatism. Conservatism gets a bad press. That’s because, as is often the case, there are at least two types. There is the dogmatic, retrograde one, which considers that everything was better in the past. It inherits an old philosophical mental model that goes from Plato to Rousseau, according to which there was an original state of purity, from which man has fallen, which we must restore, by violence if necessary. But there is another kind of conservatism, which is called “British”, or pragmatic, which was inspired by Montaigne and then by Montesquieu, Locke, Burke and others like Raymond Aron. It consists in showing epistemic modesty by positing that one can advance all the better if one is grounded. As French journalist and essayist Laetitia Strauch-Bonart observes, “Being conservative is not about lecturing people (…) it’s about remembering where we come from, and not forgetting what came before us.”

Interestingly, this is the same posture as Alinsky’s, though he was very much on the left. This should not be surprising, as the divide is less between right and left than between utopians and pragmatists. The latter approach the question of change with humility and respect, although without concession, and in essence say: change is necessary and desirable, it is the human nature, and the only way to change if we want to avoid the heap of corpses and the re-education camps, is to begin by serenely accepting what is. This is also the posture described by the English political scientist Marc Stears in his book Out of the Ordinary, in which he shows how a group of intellectuals (notably Orwell) tried to escape the divide between nostalgic conservatism and totalitarian idealism in Great Britain in the 1950s. They claimed a form of prudence, based on real life, but in the service of social change. Unclassifiable? Precisely.

The creative tension between protection and progress

Edmund Burke, a major author of British conservatism, wrongly seen as a reactionary because he criticized the utopia of the French Revolution, believed that the criterion of good policy was “a disposition to protect and a capacity to improve”. The innovator, whether industrial or political, must indeed create a tension between protection and progress. The notion of tension is essential. If it is balanced, it is creative. If it is not, it is destructive, and we fall into either immobility or revolution. In business, this means either a retreat into one’s legacy activity (e.g. Kodak and argentic film) or a headlong rush into innovation at all costs (e.g. the so-called visionary Apple in the 90s before Steve Jobs came to put things in order). In the political field, it is the nostalgia of the extreme right for a Country that never existed, or the sometimes utopian adventurism of current political ecology.

The mechanism that was invented by the West to maintain this creative tension between protection and progress in the political domain, and which was theorized by Burke, is democracy. It is thanks to it that ancients and moderns are led to compromise, and it is these compromises that avoid catastrophes. So yes, paradoxically enough, to change the world, one must be, to a certain extent, conservative.

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