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London-based creative training, consulting & strategic design company providing onsite & public courses on the Creative Problem Solving Process, team-building, leadership, entrepreneurial mindset, business storytelling, applied improvisation and innovation facilitation. We run ideation sessions, we mentor, we coach, we deliver. In all we do, we're here to make you more agile & more successful in the face of change. 

Blog

Innovation, invention and “system”

Kate Hammer

Culture officer-at-large Grant McCracken takes issue in his recent HBR post with the characterisation of entrepreneurs as system builders, creating enterprise by “marshaling, mobilizing, and connecting different worlds,” to quote Said Business School professor Marc Ventresca.

Ventresca spoke at TEDx Oxbridge: 

I think Ventresca's point about the baggage surrounding the term "entrepreneur" is fair. I also think it's wise to recognise and respect the efforts of bricoleurs and boot-strappers.  

But equally, I see what Grant misses from Ventresca’s characterisation. In Grant's words it's that

“real acts of innovation are something more than acts of combination.”

Rightly, Grant is interested in the times when the entrepreneur “works de novo in the production of real novelty.” More visionary, less certain, more like an artist, less like an engineer, such entrepreneurs “truly are going where no one has gone before.” Entrepreneurs like this are moving into the realm Grant calls "culturematic". 

New, strange worlds

Grant wants to celebrate the way in which innovators leave the comfort zone of the familiar and investigate a different world that will, by comparison, seem strange. That new, strange world is accessible to the entrepreneur because s/he has willingly stepped outside “the space capsule of prevailing theory and practice”.

Outside that comfortable space capsule — where innovations are adaptive, incremental and bred from recombining a la Ventresca — it’s hard in the beginning to know what things mean and what value they might have. Which is why this mode holds such great interest to Grant, who is first and last, an anthropologist. The rules as to what will matter haven’t yet been written. And there’s no guarantee that an idea won’t literally fail to make sense. So this uncharted space is a dangerous, and exciting, space in which to invent.

Uncharted space

It’s a space I recognise from my improv days and, later, from devising theatre where we made (or tried) to make something literally out of nothing that was worth the audience’s time and attention. In theatre, it was often a matter of degrees how much we were inventing de novo and how much we were remixing and mashing up character types, situations and vernaculars. But wherever we fell on that spectrum, the activity we were engaged in was play.

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” – psychologist Carl Jung

I think one of the reasons Applied Improvisation is gaining a presence in enterprise and industry is precisely because AI provides people with tools and techniques for entering "uncharted space" and working within it with their full resources as imaginative, co-operating human beings. (For more on Applied Improvisation, see AIN.) 

Both/And

So if I had to characterise innovation in business, I’d keep alive both Ventresca’s and McCracken’s conceptions. One departs from the established system, one works within it making fresh connections. 

To my mind, they both validly capture practices that exist and produce meaningful innovations. They are two kindred spirits.

Patent trolls

For me the real counterpoint is the patent troll: The company who buys up patents and manages them as a portfolio. The inventive spirit doesn’t guide the patent troll. Greed is the troll's motivation.

Oftentimes, managing a patent portfolio means waiting for an inventor to infringe a patent, and then slapping them with a lawsuit. Taking their name from the baddies in the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” story, patent trolls like the trolls under the bridge who lurk, attacking out of the blue and using fear to extort cash from people with the ingenuity and gumption to take an idea on the road.

Thanks to Gregg’s tip, I listened to the latest episode of This American Life, Ira Glass’s NPR show. What I heard was, as Gregg has said, chilling. The abuse of the patent system to stifle real entrepreneurship is so disheartening, so anti-democratic, so dishonest.

The reason I’m connecting this story to the debate about the entrepreneurial spirit is this: 

 the patent trolling is about working a system.

The patent troll is not out to create value generally for consumers or within an industry sector, but to extract cold hard cash from people with a bigger vision and more courage. It’s the legal system around intellectual property ownership and infringement that the patent troll is working. No imagination, no guts, no spirit of invention or exploration.

I’m at a loss to know if it’s the cynicism of the ploy or its cowardice or the parasitical flavour of these law suits that gets me most. Frankly, all three drive me bonkers.

How to protect the good guys without enabling the greedy trolls is certainly an area where we need to apply some creative problem solving!

Using patent trolling to reframe the first debate: I know it’s important to do a good job characterising innovation, creativity, problem-solving, risk taking. But when there are real enemies like patent trolls to unmask, sometimes the other kinds of discussions seem cozily academic and just a little besides the point.