herding the butterflies of innovation

John and I had a meeting yesterday with one of our research partners. Mike is the local head of knowledge management for his firm, and he’s been great to work with on our network analysis research project. At the end of the meeting we were talking about how our project fit in with his overall knowledge management scheme, and Mike said “A lot of people say that knowledge management is like herding cats, but I say that it’s really like herding butterflies. You can’t make butterflies go anywhere – if you want them around you have to create a garden that attracts them.”

In addition to being a nice metaphor, to me this rings true as a good way to manage in general – and it’s just as true for managing innovation as it is for managing knowledge (and really, the line between the two is an awfully thin one anyway). If you’re trying to make your firm more innovative, you can’t force people to execute ideas. You have to give them the tools that they need, in an atmosphere that allows them try out new ideas. If you feel that you need to have full control over the process, it’s not likely to work very well.

The thing of it is, if you get the conditions right, you’ll likely not only get what you want, but some pleasant surprises as well. Since moving into our house, Nancy & I have been planting the yard to attract birds. Some of the birds that have come into the yard as a result have been predictable, some have been entirely surprising, and we’ve gotten a couple of birds in that I never would have imagined seeing in a suburban yard. Gardening for butterflies produces the same kind of results. So does managing for innovation. In all three cases, you have to focus on creating the right conditions, and then have some faith that they will lead to the outcomes that you want. The bonus though is that if you do it well, you’ll also get some outcomes that you never imagined.

(image from flickr/Jason Pier under a creative commons license)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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