Innovation, learning and a doer’s manifesto

I was invited by the editor of Prometheus, a journal that publishes on innovation, to review a book by Luis Perez-Breva called “Innovating: a doer’s manifesto“. The review is published here. Much of what follows comes from the pre-print of the review.

image of book cover entitled Innovating, A Doer's Manifesto for Starting from a Hunch, Prototyping Problems, Scaling Up and Learning to be Productively Wrong
Book cover of Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto for Starting a Hunch, Prototyping Problems, Scaling Up, and Learning to be Productively Wrong, by Luis Perez-Breva, published by the MIT Press

The reason the editor asked me to write the review was because 15 years ago I had also written a book in a similar vein: “Enabling innovation: a practical guide to understanding and fostering innovation“. Years and thousands of miles separate the two books – mine had its roots with rice harvesters and dryers in the Philippines and Vietnam, while Luis Perez-Breva’s comes from his work at MIT and from being a “serial innovator” in the US. Nevertheless, the two have much in common in emphasizing the evolutionary and learning nature of innovation, wherever it might happen. In my own book I developed the ‘learning selection’ model in which an innovation begins as a bright idea that is prototyped and co-developed in a collaboration between an R&D team and the key stakeholders who will reproduce and use the innovation. Like the process laid out in Perez-Breva’s book, innovation happens as a result of repeated experiential learning cycles involving the innovators and the key stakeholders in which the innovation evolves and becomes fitter.

Perez-Breva’s book made me realize that my model was weak on arguably the most important part of the process – that of coming up with the bright idea in the first place and developing it into something tangible with which the innovator or innovators can start to engage key stakeholders. The author explains that the reason we overlook the genesis of the innovation process is that our understanding of innovation comes from after-the-fact accounts of successful innovation processes. In all these accounts, the innovation and the problem it solves are clear and because we know the end of the story, the steps along the way seem obvious, almost inevitable. Another reason we expect a linear narrative is that as humans, we are hardwired to see the world as more ordered and predictable than it actually is. This, apparently, is adaptive, because if we were more realistic about how the world really is, we would not risk getting up in the morning!

However, this ‘hindsight’ thinking, as Perez-Breva calls it, is misleading. Looking forward, at the beginning of a want-to-be innovation process, nothing is clear and you will inevitably be wrong many times before the form of the problem and solution become clear to you and the key stakeholders, or community as Perez-Breva calls them. Hindsight thinking carries two risks: on one hand paralysis where you are unable to start without being clear on the bright idea; and, on the other hand over-committing too early to the prototype solution and ending up with a costly failure. All you need to start, Perez-Breva (p. 33) says, is:

  • A hunch about a real-world problem
  • A ‘set of parts’ and access to a community of people to render the problem tangible
  • A strategy to engage in trial and error, and an appetite to learn by being wrong.

The mistake that most people make, myself included, is to assume that the ‘set of parts’ is already your prototype innovation and that your engagement with the community is to adapt and perfect this prototype. Wrong. At the start, you are not an expert and so the process is to learn about the problem and the solution with the community of potential replicators, users and beneficiaries. This shift in thinking is liberating, Perez-Breva says, because it means you can start almost anywhere with the resources you have at hand. What you learn will help you clarify the problem and solution and help you make the pitch for resources you need to take the innovation to scale later on. So rather than be paralyzed by uncertainty, we should embrace it and use it to our advantage.

Perez-Breva justifies delaying fixing on a solution because changes in the onset of an innovation process may have unpredictably large effects on the outcome and vice versa: slight differences in the outcome you envisage may greatly affect your starting point. This he calls non-linearity. Perez-Breva wants us to get out of bed and innovate motivated by the potential that comes with non-linearity.

Critical to Perez-Breva’s approach is the way he says a problem should be structured. There must be: recognition that the problem is a real-world problem; at least one imagined solution to the problem; and, a way of verification that the problem has been solved. As you engage, your understanding of the problem, solutions and forms of verification can all change, and almost certainly will.

From my own interest in enabling grassroots innovation processes in developing countries, I would very much agree with this formulation. Certainly, one needs to identify a compelling development challenge and explore potential solutions to motivate yourself and others. However, what is frequently overlooked is how to select on beneficial modifications and discard those that are not. Who and how does one decide whether a particular pathway is an innovation dead-end or not? In any innovation process a multitude of different types of selection decisions need to be made if the innovation is to evolve. The innovation literature talks about product champions fulfilling this role – people who have the best interest of the innovation at heart. Perez-Breva does not highlight this role in his approach, assuming, I think, that it is carried out by the single innovator for which the book is written. However, some form of decentralization of selection decisions is needed when nurturing grassroots innovation processes, and this is an area of the book that could be strengthened.

At some point, you, the innovator, decide to systematize your current innovation prototype, perhaps after you have successfully lobbied for resources to do so. You systematize through building an organization to take your innovation to the next level of scale. According to Perez-Breva (p. 305), the logic is simple: “You present what you did (the past) to motivate where you will go (the future) but what you work on is the middle (the present).” As you build the next organization you use what you have learned to simplify where you can, and grow. As you systematize, one level of organization gives way to another, in an organic, evolutionary process.

He says that most emerging organizations fail because they focus on the future and ignore the present that learns from the past. This certainly resonates with my experience of helping agricultural research and development projects think through how they will have an impact. Again and again, I see the rosy future they have painted for donors coming back to undermine and undervalue the real-world muddling that is the only vehicle that can get you to that future. The rosy narrative is built assuming a clean, linear progression to impact at scale against which any muddle, iteration or wrong turn is seen as a sign of failure.

A central theme in the book is how the language of innovation constrains how we think. In response, Perez-Breva dispenses with almost all of the innovation jargon to develop a language of his own. For example, while the innovation literature talks about artefacts and agents, Perez-Breva talks about parts and people. Rather like reading Clockwork Orange or Trainspotting, it takes a while to get used to his language. I think the author is justified in doing so to help the reader break away from hindsight thinking.

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