How does great innovation truly happen? This question often kicks off discussions on innovation, with many expecting the classic tale of a visionary entrepreneur sparking a revolution. However, this idealized notion of a sudden “big bang” innovation can be problematic, leading to either a sense of resignation or a rush into monumental projects that often yield little. In reality, even disruptive innovation typically progresses incrementally, building upon past efforts and grounded in existing conditions.
“The less intelligence clings to reality, the more it dreams of revolution.” -Raymond Aron
When I give a seminar on innovation, I always start with the same question: “How do you think great innovation happens?” 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 asked that question, and for years I’ve gotten the same answer. And for years I have spent my seminars trying to dismantle that belief.
Because a disruptive innovation is not a sudden “big bang. James Watt did not invent the steam engine in a flash of genius as he stepped out of his shower. He made a crucial contribution to a problem that great inventors and scientists had been working on for many years.
The supremacy of a “big bang” model is problematic. By setting the bar so high, by essentially making people believe that innovation necessarily means creating the next Facebook or Tesla, this romantic, idealistic vision leads either to resignation in the face of the unattainable scale of the task, or to a headlong rush into “big projects” that more often than not lead nowhere. An executive at a large company recently told me that his excom was so obsessed with disruptive innovation, which is necessarily conceived as “big,” that he could no longer propose a small project: “At less than a billion, no project interests them,” he added, lamenting that as a result, many smaller opportunities are ignored and thus left to the competition. Thinking big about change, with a big idea as a starting point, most often prevents you from making it happen.
The progressive nature of change that has been observed historically is underscored in entrepreneurship by the theory of effectuation developed over the past twenty years by researcher Saras Sarasvathy. Based on careful observation of how entrepreneurs create new products, new businesses, and new markets, Sarasvathy highlighted five principles of effectuation. First principle: Do with what you have. This is a principle of reality, in direct contrast to idealism, which consists of crying over what you would like to have or demanding what should be. Second principle: act small, at an affordable loss. This underlies the incrementalism of most innovation, as opposed to the revolutionary big bang that is always proposed. Third principle: co-create the future. Far from the visionary who splits the sea in two and shows people the way, the entrepreneur is the one who patiently weaves the threads of his project through compromises with committed stakeholders. This principle underscores the inherently social nature of innovation and change in general, but above all the need for an attitude of respect for other stakeholders, far from the much-vaunted “leader-follower” asymmetry. Fourth principle: Embrace surprises. This is about accepting that the future is not written, or even predictable, but that it is constructed by our individual actions.
These principles correspond to an epistemic modesty, a humility towards the social process, which, however, does not prevent and, on the contrary, allows profound changes, as our industrial civilization testifies. It is from reality that entrepreneurs begin to change the world, step by step.
This observation of incremental change, building on the actions of others, is not limited to the business world. Major political victories take years to achieve. All change – whether social, economic, industrial, artistic, scientific, or political – is first and foremost a transformation of what already exists, capitalizing on what has been done by predecessors.
This means accepting reality, being part of history without judging the past. Recognizing what is, accepting it, not being a prisoner of it, but starting from a solid base, is the practical and moral imperative that Saul Alinsky, an American sociologist and civil rights activist, stated as early as the 1940s. He wrote: “As an organizer, I start where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. Accepting the world as it is does not diminish our desire to change it into what we think it should be.
This acceptance of reality is also the credo of conservatism. Conservatism gets a bad rap. That’s because, as is often the case, there are at least two types. There is the dogmatic, retrograde one that thinks everything was better in the past. It inherits an old philosophical mental model, from Plato to Rousseau, according to which there was an original state of purity from which man has fallen and which we must restore, by force if necessary. But there is another kind of conservatism, called “British” or pragmatic, inspired by Montaigne and then by Montesquieu, Locke, Burke, and others like Raymond Aron. It consists in demonstrating epistemic modesty, by asserting that one can advance all the better if one is grounded. As the French journalist and essayist Laetitia Strauch-Bonart observes, “Being conservative is not about lecturing people (…) it’s about remembering where we came from and not forgetting what came before us”.
Interestingly, this is the same attitude as Alinsky, although he was very much on the left. This should not be surprising, since the divide is less between right and left than between utopians and pragmatists. The latter approach the question of change with humility and respect, though without concessions, essentially saying: change is necessary and desirable, it is human nature, and the only way to change, if we are to avoid the piles of corpses and the re-education camps, is to begin by serenely accepting what is.
The creative tension between protection and progress
Edmund Burke, a major author of British conservatism who was wrongly considered 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 idea of tension is essential. If it is balanced, it is creative. If it is not, it is destructive, and we fall into either stagnation 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 set things right).
In conclusion, far from a sudden “big bang,” the innovation journey is often an incremental and collaborative process rooted in reality, and maintaining a balance between conservatism and change is essential to navigating this complex terrain. The mechanism invented by the West to maintain this balance between protection and progress in the political sphere, and 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 catastrophe. So yes, paradoxically, to change the world, you have to be conservative to some extent.
A goof example of conservatism to innovate is Thomas Edison: How innovators battle entrenched mental models. Lessons from Thomas Edison’s success. Read more about disruptive innovation: Why asking a innovation unit to be more disruptive is not a good idea. You can also read my book: 📖 A Manager’s Guide to Disruptive Innovation.
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