Rules and tools

So far I’ve charted the innovation landscape along two axes: the demand for problem solutions and the supply of ideas for potential solutions. And I’ve separated both axes into what we already know and what is new. Today, I’ll explore this concept further, focusing on rules and tools: to what extent do we have rules in place and tools available to facilitate and promote the innovation we need?

Let’s start with rules. Or more specifically, let’s consider those areas of the innovation landscape where we already have established rules that can guide our quest for unprecedented problem solutions. Society’s way to formulate its rules is by implementing institutions. I dwelt upon the concept of institutions earlier on, hence I’ll quote from a previous post:

Institutions are the traditions, customs, practices, and codes of conduct a society employs to organise its affairs. You might say that institutions are the explicit and implicit rules of the game, they are “the way we are doing business around here”. This concept of institutions comprises written and unwritten rules, and it’s a lot broader than just the visible organisations and formal structures a society creates to pursue its goals.

For known problems, the existence of institutions is fairly obvious. Because these problems have been around for some period, society at large did have the necessary time to think these problems through. And as a result of these considerations, society could define, and implement, appropriate institutions. These rules of the game give us readily available guidance as to how we should or shouldn’t handle these problems.

That is the case in the first quadrant (business as usual) as much as for the second quadrant (research), even though the respective institutions are quite different: innovation in Q1 is guided by those institutions that shape the business environment (including managing a company as well as the engagement of the company with the market, with customers and competitors), while innovation in Q2 will respond to institutions that are related to research, such as for example higher education or the scientific method.


So we have rules established in Q1 and Q2; but what does that imply for unknown or unacknowledged problems? What does that mean for Q3 and Q4? Of course the novelty of these problems is the reason for the absence of dedicated institutions: there was simply no time (yet) to develop them. That doesn’t say that there are no rules at all, it just means that there are no specific or concrete rules that we could readily apply.

However, there are certainly abstract rules, like moral codes of conduct, like the rule of law, that we have to interpret in the context of a new problem. This interpretation will consume time, and that usually means that innovation in Q3 and Q4 is less efficient and responsive than innovation under established rules. Though this dividing line across the innovation landscape is neither solid nor precisely defined, it still marks a significant difference: innovation in Q1 and Q2 draws clear guidance from the existing institutions, because they provide structure and orientation that is readily available. By contrast, innovation in Q3 and 4 must progress without such clear guidance, which –when compared with Q1 and Q2– entails additional risk and potential delays.


Of course there is another way to split the innovation landscape into two parts: let’s look for available tools that we can use for our endeavour. I believe those tools are easily identified in the ideas for potential solutions, because these ideas serve a double role: they are the building blocks for novel problem solutions, and at the same time they provide the tools we need for developing and implementing these solutions.

Therefore, we have tools availed to facilitate and promote innovation in that part of the innovation landscape that is shaped by known ideas: in the first quadrant (business as usual) and the third quadrant (disruptive). You might say that in those two quadrants the known ideas provide us with the main resource and the basic mechanics for successful innovation. By contrast, Q2 and Q4 have to deal with novel ideas. In those quadrants, innovation first needs to find or build the necessary tools, which is less predictable and more time consuming, hence entails higher risk than innovation with available tools. And again, this dividing line is neither solid nor precisely defined, but the difference is clear: available tools provide an advantage, a head start for innovations that are pursued in Q1 and Q3.

Where does this get us?

First, I believe this discussion helps us understand why innovation in the first quadrant, under the conditions of business as usual, is so prominent in our thinking: these are the efficiency innovations that are marked by little risk and great certainty, because tools are available and rules are established.

Second, at the other end of the spectrum, we can see the fourth quadrant, the area that holds all the wicked challenges: that quadrant seems to suffer from all the disadvantages, with the absence of dedicated rules and the lack of tools. Despite the truly tough conditions, this is still an area of problems that society needs to get solved. So we must come to terms with it. Hence I’ll revisit that quadrant in a future post.

Finally, we realise that the second and the third quadrant (research and disruptive) are not as easy as the first quadrant, but still a lot easier than the fourth. The sustaining and disruptive innovations that spring from Q2 and Q3, respectively, are essential for progress in Q1. Innovation in Q2 and Q3 is pushing the boundaries of business as usual. That’s what I’ll focus my attention on in the upcoming post.


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