Innovation Requires Change

Marshall McLuhan and David Carson from The Book of Probes

I ran across a fantastic quote today from Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media:

Any innovation threatens the equilibrium of existing organization. In big industry new ideas are invited to rear their heads so that they can be clobbered at once. The idea department of a big firm is a sort of lab for isolating dangerous viruses. When one is found, it is assigned to a group for neutralizing and immunizing treatment. It is comical, therefore, when anybody applies to a big corporation with a new idea that would result in a great “increase of production and sales.” Such an increase would be a disaster for the existing management. They would have to make way for new management. Therefore, no new idea ever starts from within a big operation. It must assail the organization from the outside, through some small but competing organization.

Written in 1964, the book is alarmingly prescient.  It is amazing how current many of the key ideas within it still are.

I don’t think that this idea is universally true anymore (and it probably wasn’t in 1964, either), but it does point out the key battle that we are fighting when we try to embed innovation within existing firms.

One big difference is that if you were a big firm 50 years ago, you could more easily afford to have this attitude.  However, one of McLuhan’s important points is that new media accelerate the pace of, well, everything. Especially the pace of change.

The consequence of this is that you can’t afford to have this attitude now – the competitive landscape is changing too quickly.  Innovation is close to a baseline skill now.

We can no longer afford to search out new ideas only to “clobber them at once.”  We have to actually make them real.  Making new ideas real does mean that we have to change the way we manage – continuously.  It does mean that we have to act like small organizations – even if we’re big.  It does mean that we have to build our organizations for idea flow – not compliance.

All of this is simple, but not easy. But let’s at least aim to start on it in the New Year.

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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7 thoughts on “Innovation Requires Change

    • I’ve got more than three pages of notes on it so far – this is just the quote that jumped out the most at me. It’s a strange combination of wilfully obtuse and outrageously quotable, but worth the effort.

      You have a great New Year too Greg!

  1. I think it is amazing when you look back on how somethings don’t seem to change but everything is seemingly changing! I think the assailing from the outside is so true even today, even more so, just in different ways.

    The difference is we should have the tools, abilities to ‘receive, absorb and translate’ all this so much better today if we can choose to react in better ways. We still feel ringfencing works to isolate, less the dangerous virus but more the place to allow a ‘culture’ to incubate.

    The one that has not changed, when something is presented as radical it seems to ‘assault’ existing management and that challenges the equilibrium and until we adopt fluid and agile organizations, it stays as described in the article by Marshall McLuhan as the need for “neutralizing and immunizing treatment”

    Great find Tim, I wonder if it will still stand the test of time in another 50 years- lets hope not!!

    Good new year

    • Thanks Paul! I think that the requirement for change will always be there, but my hope is that we can continue to build the tools that make it easier to do this within larger organisations… We’ll see!

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