Modernizers, Preservationists and Innovation

Adam Thierer wrote a terrific post today exploring his ongoing major theme comparing internet optimists and pessimists. He has written a series of very interesting posts assessing the arguments of the pessimists that think that the impact of the internet on society is generally bad (e.g. Nick Carr, Andrew Keen, Jaron Lanier), and the optimists that think that the internet is transformational, and positive (e.g. Clay Shirky, Kevin Kelly, all the Cluetrain Manifesto guys).

In today’s post, Thierer quotes some ideas from Rob Atkinson, who builds on Virginia Postrel’s ideas about dynamism and stasis. He describes the Preservationists this way:

From their perspective, evolutionary dynamism is undesirable precisely because we can’t preserve some of the things which they feel made that previous era great. That something could be a specific form of culture, a particular set of institutions, or any number of other things. The key point is: The don’t like the fact the technology is fundamentally disruptive and that is dislodges old norms and institutions. What is familiar is more comforting than that which is unknown or uncertain. That’s the security blanket that the stasis / preservationist mentality provides.

In contrast, the Modernizers embrace dynamism:

Dynamism, by contrast, requires ongoing leaps of faith since we must continuously embrace, or at least accept, the fundamental uncertainty of social / technological change. I love the scene at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” [clip below] where Indy has to make the “leap of faith” and step out onto a walkway that doesn’t appear to be there at first. It’s a useful way of thinking about how we must sometimes approach life in the Digital Age.

Finally, he explains why he sides with the Modernizers:

It’s just amazing how fast disruptive innovation unfolds on the digital frontier. Again, no one knows what lies around the corner next. But if we were to adopt the “preservationist” mentality, we might never find out. We have to continue to be willing to take little leaps of faith each day. It’s vital that we embrace evolutionary dynamism and leave a broad sphere for continued experimentation by individuals and organizations alike…

This has some interesting implications for those of interested in innovation. First, we have both Modernizers and Preservationists within our organizations. Usually, there is one small group that is actively trying to change things, there is another small group that wants to keep things as they are, and there is the majority of people in the middle waiting to see what happens. The two groups at the extremes fight for power by trying to win over the uncommitted bunch in the middle.

It’s useful to have some insight into why some might by Modernizers while others are Preservationists if you are in the middle of one of these fights. One of the challenges of embedding innovation within an organization is to win the internal fight for peoples’ hearts and minds. You’ll never convince the Preservationists to contribute to innovation initiatives, but you don’t need to – you just need to get the “swing voters” in the middle to buy in.

This same dynamic happens within markets. There are forces for change, and also a countervailing conservatism. The early adopters in the market will usually check out the new stuff on the fringes, but most of the time, you need to eventually win over the slower-to-adopt group on the middle to win over the longer term.

So we see this fight between Modernizers and Preservationists repeat itself in many different arenas. Gaining a better understanding of how these debates play out in one arena, such as the impact of the internet, can give us some insights into similar debates in other contexts.

If we’re going to innovate, we have to get good at making those leaps of faith.

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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6 thoughts on “Modernizers, Preservationists and Innovation

  1. Another great post on how innovation is linked to human attitudes, Tim!

    I’ve recently been reading a couple of posts indicating that integrating diverse purposes (innovation vs. current business) and – related – personal attitudes (modernization vs. preservation) is likely to bear a major potential for organizations. Let’s call it “two-pronged approach”.

    The interesting thing is: your quote “If we’re going to innovate, we have to get good at making those leaps of faith.” is valid for both organzations AND people (human resources).

    I’m just reading another great post by Don Norman which is very worth reading:

    He also points out that we have to accept a fundamental uncertainty for innovation and progress:
    “Data-driven design through testing is indeed effective at improving existing products. But where did the idea for the product come from in the first place? From someone’s creative mind. Testing is effective at enhancing an idea, but creative designers and inventors are required to come up with the idea.”
    “To do this, we need creative designers, creative business people, and risk takers willing to push the boundaries. New ideas will be resisted. Great innovations will come at the cost of multiple great failures.”

    What bothers me most: there is still to much discussion about either/or – but from my persepctive we need to focus on approaching how to combine modernization and preservation, on multiple levels – and therefore utilize indivual human preferences / attitudes. That’s a primary leadership task.

    Both mindests are valuable. The actual purpose depends on the context.

    Cheers, Ralph

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply Ralph! I agree with all of that. I think that one of the key challenges in managing innovation is to strike a balance between competing extremes.

    Almost everything that gets framed as an either/or choice actually requires us to integrate both ends of the spectrum. That’s hard to do, and it is a big part of what distinguishes well-managed organisations.

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