Sharing ideas… and emotions: why innovation needs cooperation

Photo Norbert Alter / Professor of Sociology, University Paris-Dauphine / January 11th, 2013

Try as you may, innovation can never be reduced to a mere good idea. Innovation is a process, which is played chiefly in the way those who are to implement it can successfully make novelty theirs. Quite often management tends to overlook this process of appropriation, or to consider it only in terms of hindrances and obstacles. How, on the contrary, can the internal resources of organizations be enhanced and mobilized? The answer is straightforward: by developing a culture of cooperation, which allows for some degree of transgression… and also makes way for emotion.

ParisTech Review – In a recent afterword to Ordinary Innovation, you wrote that novelty, to take hold, should never overlook social practices. But doesn’t innovation exactly consist in breaking away from these practices?

Norbert Alter – Probably, however it seems to me that a double misunderstanding lies behind this idea. Firstly, we tend to confuse invention with innovation. An invention is the act of creating something new. As such, it may be the fruition of a single man’s ingenuity. Innovation, on the other hand, involves disseminating such novelty. It refers to a much broader process that includes social, economic and technological dimensions. It’s not just about having good ideas, and I would eagerly reverse the perspective: a good idea is an idea that has become good, after undergoing a reality check, being gradually transformed and, sometimes, challenged. The importance of this dynamics of improvement must clearly not be overlooked, as it is precisely the hallmark of successful innovating.

This brings us to the second mistake. Everybody knows this expression, ‘to think outside the box’, which somehow means to break free from preprocessed thinking. Incidentally, in French, it also has another meaning unwillingly: to ‘think outside of the company’, given that in slang they are called ‘boxes’. However, while innovation is all about the process of transformation and gradual improvement, this process can only take place within the company, within the ‘box’.

However, innovation processes are often outsourced: creativity seminars are carried out outside, start-ups are created, and consultants are resorted to.

You’re right, and this is even spectacular if one takes the example of organizational innovations. There is now a growing divergence between organizational design and actual practice. Executives pay an arm and a leg to buy beautiful organizations – there is an almost aesthetic imperative at hand here: the taste for formal perfection has been present since the days of Taylor, and these days it translates into the PowerPoint presentations of consultants. Behind all this is the underlying idea that if something is beautiful, it will be good. Effective. This is a misconception. I insist: an idea only becomes good through contact – the moment it is deformed by pitting itself against practice.

But we have quite a hard time accepting that deformation, and acknowledging that it is valuable. Let us observe what happens once the decision has been taken to adopt a new organization. Downstream managers, proximity managers are the ones who are asked to implement it… but the means necessary to identify the very strain they must subject it to are not provided. Should they fail, it is their fault; but if they succeed, it’s just an evidence that the organization is good. And when a problem arises, instead of improving organization and getting their feedback, a consultant is brought in. Here we have a profound and almost militant indifference, towards the frictions that take place in the real world, on the one hand, and on the other, towards the company’s internal resources.

In the way local managers account for their work, there is a formula that recurs frequently and that is not getting enough attention. “I’m here, they say, to make sure things make sense.” Does this mean that meaningfulness is missing or, worse, that there are foolish decisions they must cope with? Or, more simply, that what they are asked to implement is not making sense to them? The question deserves to be asked, and it points to the role of beliefs in the life of an organization. It’s no secret that operational decisions are often based on beliefs. For example, often we are only going to hire people who have a particular career path, without wondering why. A similar phenomenon is to be found in organizational choices: nowadays, matrix management is all over the place. Yet sometimes it’s less efficient than a smart bureaucracy!

Generally speaking, beliefs are not very helpful and they stand in the way of learning. Even when hidden under the guise of ‘good practices’, they derive little benefit from experience. Perhaps the real challenge of management lies there: to learn to look at the reality of things in the eye.

This is where lies the strength, sometimes, of autodidacts. Was this not one of the lessons of your last book (The Force of Difference, 2012), which focuses on the careers of atypical enterpreneurs?

Indeed, even if the bottom line is that such is a quality to be found in all great leaders. One of the guys I interviewed to write this book told me the following: “I hate GPS. When driving with a GPS, you don’t look at the landscape, you don’t notice the signs, and given you don’t get lost you don’t get to ask directions to others.” What a beautiful parable, isn’t it? This is precisely how he has achieved success: his strength was to identify paths out of listening to advice from the ‘natives’, that is to say from doers, as opposed to getting it from management technology. Of course, there are dashboards and even PowerPoint presentations in his company, but his decisions are never dictated by management tools or social conventions.

It is crucial for leaders and more broadly for companies not to cut themselves off from reality. And a key issue is to work on the diverse ways individuals understand situations, to circulate these representations, to exchange them, so as to share reality. An organization that only shares beliefs and nothing else is doomed to fail.

This logic of sharing and cooperation may extend to customers: in the digital industry, for example, user experience is now at the center of innovation processes, and this approach is spreading quickly nowadays.

No doubt, and it that is something that wants to be scrutinized, even if it has a lot more to do with innovation in products, and less with organizational innovating.

As a matter of fact, issues usually appear the moment things actually start being used: it is therefore in this context that a vision that integrates the temporality of a process makes sense. And the moment you get that is precisely the moment you get the measuring rod for the quality of the organization, that is to say you get to size up its ability to disseminate information, to share problems and successes, and to get its various stakeholders and services to cooperate.

I shall point out, by the way, that the phenomenon you are referring to can sometimes create tension: for instance, in some companies, marketing takes over design, and clearly, not always for the better. As a matter of fact it would be quite unrealistic to expect to rid the innovation process of any tensions. The question is rather to prevent them from bringing everything else to a standstill.

Then how can an innovative culture be promoted?

This is probably the key issue today. If it needs to be addressed, it’s because we are at the crossroads of two managerial cultures.

On the one hand, the language used in business environments today tends to value employee creativity. Corporate communications has taken a hands-on approach of the subject, and HR have made it a skill. But on the other hand there is a tendency to crush the aforementioned creativity in processes and to outsource it. However, and it bears repeating, creativity must not reside outside of companies: it must nest within them. After all, the current trend to outsource creativity is merely reproducing a feature of the so-called ‘scientific management’, which consisted in ascribing it to a dedicated department. It should be noted that the spirit of taylorism is still very much alive.

However much employee creativity gets to be celebrated on paper, the bad habit of thinking innovation in terms of design has been kept, instead of learning to think it in terms of dissemination. This approach leads to focus on methods. It is a response that has relevance, of course, as ultimately the purpose of a company is not to foster the all-round development of everyone’s creativity. Companies work with procedures, period. But the ‘methodical’ approach of innovation is limited by its inability to take into account a crucial point: ownership, that is to say the capacity of stakeholders – managers, employees, suppliers, subcontractors – to adapt the novelty to their needs, or to their conception of efficiency. That is why an empirical fact must be remembered, confirmed by the long history of innovations: innovation wants to be managed downstream, not upstream.

Then does this mean that cooperation plays a significant role in a company’s ability to be innovative?

Absolutely, and this is even a matter of common sense: at first, innovators are always a minority, or at any rate that’s the way they start out, and the more allies you find in an innovative project, the better you bear with being a minority.

But besides this horizontal cooperation, between colleagues, a vertical, hierarchical cooperation should come on top of it. One of its challenges is the hierarchy’s ability to live with a measure of transgression. One cannot innovate without breaking the rules: innovative bosses are people who can bear the transgression of rules, and risk taking.

More broadly, an innovative company is more and more defined by its ability to share.

To share information?

Yes, of course, but not only. I mentioned earlier the importance of sharing a reality. This involves much more complex and much richer exchanges, which not only involve functional relationships, but a genuine social link. Cooperation is not limited, far from it, to sending or receiving information. It plays out in other forms of exchange, which cannot be expressed in terms of procedures or methods. For example, when we cooperate, we share emotions, and this is something vital. And emotions are, precisely, at the heart of our relationship with reality. To share emotions is not only to pave the way for cooperation. It is to share reality itself.

Sharing emotions is a special way of exchanging and companies feed on these exchanges. In an emotional moment, people get to exchange a lot. People are moved, reveal themselves, are brought together by something in common and in doing so, they open up the possibility of circulating everything that actually constitutes cooperation. Whenever we act like that, we trade lots of information without going by the book; we give time, compliment reputation, sometimes we even swap employees… in a word, we support each other. People did not wait for coaching to support one another!

Sharing emotions is highly valuable in business, since it fulfills essential functions. It creates esprit de corps. Not an abstract fellowship or one prosaically defined by common interests, but a significant fellowship, one where things or relationships become meaningful. We often tend to focus on a ‘cognitivist’ understanding of meaningfulness, which would like to boil it down to something intelligible. But meaningfulness is also that je ne sais quoi, of a symbolic and affective dimension, which connects us to a team, a company, and is the reason why you are not going to accomplish a task mindlessly or like a robot, but, quite the contrary, you are going to put your heart into it.

What strikes me nowadays, and this is in accordance with our remarks on the outsourcing of creativity, is a strange phenomenon that we might call an externalization of the social bond. Companies increasingly tend to eradicate so-called idle areas and ‘downtimes’, while this is precisely where this sharing of emotion, which is essential to the life of a company, gets to play its part. And meanwhile, they set up seminars on emotional intelligence, outside of the headquarters… or resort to coaching!

It may be that companies, just as management theories, are having a hard time finding the proper place for emotion: either it is ignored, either it is overvalued by producing a fictitious and enthusiastic image of team work. Where does this difficulty to take emotion into account come from, in your opinion?

I think we must go back the fundamentals of managerial thinking, which are based on the individual. This is relatively new. The scientific organization of labor, which was developed in the first half of the twentieth century, tended to ignore the specific characteristics of each individual, regarding him or her as a simple operator. Emotion was off-topic, so to speak, and at worst it parasitized production. The managerial thinking that prevails today has parted ways with this mechanistic view of human labor, by placing the individual at the very heart of the matter. Which entails two paradigms: the individual is henceforth seen as a subject that mobilizes its affects to define its behavior, and the quality of its work depends on its motivation, which thus becomes a vital stake.

This is not without consequences. Because things are not just about paying employees well enough, but to make sure they are also happy, as suggested in January 2012 by the Harvard Business Review (The Value of Happiness: How Employee Well-Being Drives profits). In a sense, this is progress. But this refocusing has taken a caricatural route: in this context, the way emotions are pictured, is that in mobilizing the constructive part of psychological affects, you get to develop the potential of workers. What we are dealing with here is an instrumental vision of emotion – it regards it as a mere tool. Ironically enough, the cover of the magazine illustrates this: instead of a human face, what you have is a smiley!

There is many a flaw in this approach. In particular, it leads to psychologize business relationships, which can lead to serious misunderstandings when things go wrong. The extraordinary diffusion of a concept as ‘moral harassment’ testifies to this: instead of considering the complex and sometimes confrontational reality of work situations, we are simplifying them into manifestations of perverse personalities. Not that harassers do not exist, but in the vast majority of cases this is not what is at stake. Symmetrically, ‘emotional intelligence’ is sold as a key skill, possessed by certain individuals and not by others. Then again, this is a very simplistic and even plainly wrong vision of what really is.

How can we get rid of these representations?

By putting the question another way. Emotion is not something that belongs to the individual, just as it is not something you can harness or ‘manage’. Emotion emerges from social relationships and it is something that gets shared.

This is precisely what the works of social psychologists have shown: when you feel a strong emotion, keeping it to yourself is quite hard. This applies to the most painful ones – having to deal with an unpleasant customer, losing a loved one, or seeing the World Trade Center towers collapse – and to the happiest ones or to successes, equally. We are, fundamentally, a social species whose cornerstone retains archaic dimensions, and just because we wear suits and ties does not mean that we cease to belong as a species.

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