Expand Your Sphere of Controversy to Improve Innovation

One of the biggest barriers to innovation that I see in firms is this: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” I’m sure you’ve heard it yourself – when I hear people say that it just drives me crazy. It’s always used as a way to kill a new idea. I ran across an interesting post yesterday by Jay Rosen from NYU that gave me an idea for how to get around this problem.

Rosen talks about a model for thinking about journalism developed by Daniel Hallin in his book about press coverage of the Vietnam War called The Uncensored War. Hallin developed this model to explain what news gets covered and what doesn’t:

Here is how Rosen describes the three spheres:

The sphere of legitimate debate is the one journalists recognize as real, normal, everyday terrain.
The sphere of consensus is the “motherhood and apple pie” of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere.
In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.”

I think that we have the same three spheres of discussion inside of our organisations. The sphere of consensus covers the things that we all assume to be true. When someone says we can’t try something new because we’ve always done it the old way, they’re saying that the new topic isn’t within the legitimate sphere of controversy. Instead, they are making the claim that it is in the sphere of consensus. This is where all of our routine activities lie.

At the other end of the spectrum, the sphere of deviance holds the ideas that are too crazy to consider. This is for all the ideas that are too risky, that don’t have a high enough Net Present Value, and that are just too out there to be considered.

Between these two, we have the sphere of legitimate controversy – the areas where we are free to bring up and debate new ideas. My contention is that in most organisations, this sphere is far too narrow. The reason that we find it hard to be innovative is that we don’t have too many areas where we’re open to considering new ideas.

Here’s an example. I’m currently leading a group that is refining the strategy for our MBA program. At the start we examined the parts of the program that are core – this is our sphere of consensus. It includes ideas like ‘our MBA is taught face-to-face’, ‘our MBA should be a premium product’, and few other statements. Stating them explicitly was very useful because it staked out a starting point. It also reflects a lot of conclusions that we were reached when we re-configured the program two years ago – so even though these ideas are part of the sphere of consensus now, they were heavily debated at the time. At the other end, we tried to avoid putting anything into the sphere of deviance. The result is that our sphere of legitimate controversy is quite broad. The advantage to this is that we have considered a broad range of new ideas, and my hope is that we’ll be able to execute several innovative ideas coming out of this process. The disadvantage to expanding this sphere is that we have to consider more ideas, which is time consuming (and threatening to everyone prone to saying ‘that’s how we’ve always done things’ – and there are always quite a few of those in any university department!).

That said, we’ve still left a lot unexamined in our sphere of consensus – the basic questions of ideology. One idea that is there is that students are our customers. Another is the idea that it’s reasonable to think of universities having customers in the first place. Both of these are assumptions that are worth probing in a bit more detail – and these are the type of core beliefs that need to be questioned from time to time.

Managers trying to increase innovation within their organisations need to make a conscious effort to expand the sphere of legitimate controversy. There a few things they can do:

  • Understand what is in your sphere of consensus. What are the assumptions that everyone believes in your organisation? Are they actually true? You need to understand what these assumptions are. We all have to have a few things in our sphere of consensus, or we’ll never get anything done. At the same time, we also need to make sure that we revisit these assumptions periodically to make sure that they still hold.
  • Start considering a few of the crazy ideas from out in the sphere of deviance. I keep saying that most organisations don’t suffer from a shortage of new ideas. Many of the ones that think they do actually have plenty of new ideas around, but they consider all of them to be outside the scope of legitimate discussion. When people keep seeing their new ideas discounted as being not even on the agenda, they stop telling you what their new ideas are.
  • Actively manage debate within your sphere of legitimate controversy. The first two suggestions help you expand the sphere of legitimate controversy – this step means that you have to actively encourage controversy. Not divisive arguing, but constructive discussion of new ideas. This is how we improve the processes of selecting and executing innovations.

The point that I’m trying to make is that as managers we set the agenda for our organisations by what topics we decide are worth discussing. In most cases, we will be more innovative if we expand the scope of these topics. You can improve your innovation performance by expanding your sphere of legitimate controversy.

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

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

9 thoughts on “Expand Your Sphere of Controversy to Improve Innovation

  1. tim,

    i also read the rosen post and found it interesting. however, i must admit, i didn’t see the connection to innovation!

    i come from the area of idea generation, and i wanted to point out that there is a tool for achieving just what you suggest: to move taboos (sphere of deviance) and axioms (sphere of consensus) into the area of consideration.

    the tool is probably best known under the name “provocation”, which was coined by edward de bono. in idea engineering, we use provocation slightly differently to de bono, namely as a structured method for generating contradictions of beliefs and assumptions.

    for exanmple, when looking for ideas for a university, provocations could be
    – what if there were no professors?
    – what if the university had no administration?
    – what if a degree took 10 years?
    – what if men and women got different degrees?
    – what if it was good to have last place in the ranking?

    as it turns out, it is a lot harder to see the dogmas and taboos than to generate the provocations. in order to discover them, you often need questions like “if an alien were to visit us, what observations would he write in his report?”



    generating provocations and finding answers to them is an excellent creative thinking warm-up exercise:
    – what if there were three genders instead of two?
    – what if gravity were turned off overnight?
    – what if men could not tell a lie on tuesdays?

  2. Thanks very much for the thoughtful reply Graham. I’ve not run across provocation before, but it sounds like it would be an exgtremely good tool for getting at some of the deeply embedded assumptions we hold. I’ll give the idea some further thought…

  3. here are some suggestions to get you started:
    – state the ideal case (what if every student got a first class degree?)
    – change a number (what if degree programs lasted 10 years?)
    – distort a property (what if all lectures had to be loud and messy?)
    – remove an assumption (what if not having a degree was desirable?)
    – reverse a relationship (what if students taught professors?)

  4. Very nice! Allowing for controversy is something we always encourage management teams we’re working with. It’s a necessity for creativity and innovation. And it works against group dynamics.

  5. Thanks Marc! It’s definitely a challenging issue to manage – as you say it works against our need for consensus.

    And Scott, thanks for the kind words.

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