It doesn't have to be the way it is - Innovation is subversive

12 Jan 2018
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin

Originally published in The Discipline of Innovation on 3rd January 2018, by UQ Business School MBA Program Director Tim Kastelle.

Are you happy with the way things are right now?

Probably not, if you’re reading blog posts about innovation. There’s likely something bothering you. It might be something small, or large. If we’re not happy with the status quo, there’s only one thing that will change it – doing something differently. This always starts with an idea.

And not just having an idea – but executing it so that it creates value. That’s innovation.

Where do these ideas come from? Usually, imagination. You have to start by saying “it doesn’t have to be the way it is.” I stole that phrase from the great author Ursula K. Le Guin in her latest book No Time to Spare:

It doesn’t have to be the way it is. That is what fantasy says. It doesn’t say “Anything goes” – that’s irresponsibility, when two and one make five, or forty-seven, or whuddevva, and the story doesn’t “add up,” as we say. Fantasy doesn’t say “Nothing is” – that nihilism. And it doesn’t say, “It ought to be this way” – that’s utopianism, a different enterprise.

It doesn’t have to be the way it is is a playful statement, made in the context of fiction, with no claim to “being real. Yet it is a subversive statement.

Subversion doesn’t suit people who, feeling their adjustment to life has been successful, want things to go on just as they are, or people who need support from authority assuring them that things are as they have to be. Fantasy not only asks “What if things didn’t go on just as they do?” but demonstrates what they might be like if they went otherwise – thus gnawing at the very foundation of the belief that things have to be the way they are.

Upholders and defenders of a status quo, political, social, economic, religious, or literary, may denigrate or diabolize or dismiss imaginative literature, because it is – more than any other kind of writing – subversive by nature.

Like fantasy, innovation is also subversive by nature. That’s partly why innovators often read fantasy and science-fiction (by the way, if you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin).

This subversion is important. And often overlooked.

This is why it’s hard for big companies to innovate, even though they have lots of advantages – they have to subvert themselves. If you’re a big company, you’re by definition a big part of the status quo. This makes ideas that subvert the status quo, well, unattractive.

That’s also why some startups work on the edge of what’s legal.

But mainly, it’s why innovators must focus on value creation. New isn’t by definition better. Innovation isn’t always good – we’re not working in deterministic systems. Our new ideas need new business models – ones that focus on value.

It’s also why we need to make sure we’re working on important problems. It might be small ideas and experiments that we try, but our goals should be ambitious. A lot of people talk about changing the world – and innovation does that. But it’s not enough to change the world – we need to make it better.