Innovation: what happens when humans get involved?

Setting the task

As part of our exploration of Innovation with our group of ambitious business owners we ran a simple exercise [1] to illuminate and explore some of the social processes of innovation. We asked the group to individually:

“write down one innovation that would make the BIG Network better. Then work together to find the best innovation in the room, when one innovation is decided to be better than another, retire the idea that was deemed to be less good. You have ten minutes from when I say… GO!”

And off they went. Initially some people paired up, some groups of three formed and there was lots of discussion, some confusion and a range of interpretations of what the task was. There was also a palpable sense of the competition in the room, who would “win”?

After about six minutes, the four minute warning was given and also when there was a minute left to go. By this stage there was one biggish group, debating a kind of compromised and developing idea, and one or two pairs still debating. The depth and detail at an individual level of the ideas, had become watered down, as discussions and debate ensued, and a higher level idea had emerged however, full refinement of this idea was some way off when at ten minutes I asked if the group had completed the task and got the answer:

“Yes!” “No!” “Ah well that doesn’t matter!”

Which I entirely agreed with. What had happened was a rich and useful source of data for us to unpack some of the social processes around innovation. Although there was some initial criticism of the activity, its set up and briefing. The fact there was no obvious winner is another debate!

Unpacking the learning

To debrief and draw out the learning from the task, participants were asked to discuss what had happened. In doing so they named almost all of the following theoretical concepts around the non-equifinality (the end state can never be predicted) of innovative processes. Proving that maybe entrepreneurs do know it all!

“It would have helped if we’d had more time!”

Correct! In the exercise we imposed a time limitation. Resources are always scarce, particularly in SMEs. Resource scarcity has a significant impact on innovative processes and the behaviour of those involved in them. We returned to this point throughout the session as in so many ways entrepreneurs are compromised by resource scarcity and have to find ways to manage. As entrepreneurs we need to acknowledge this and lead, mindfully of the compromises we are making, appreciative of the impact they will have on the results we seek.

“I spoke to the person next to me so I didn’t hear all the ideas!”

Correct, the starting conditions make a huge difference to the end result. They will always be different and particular to that moment in time. Recognising this means we can work with this fact, and ask ourselves the question: how do we best need to begin our work to get to the end of it in a useful and meaningful way?

I took the path less travelled”

As the exercise developed people took different paths around the room, being exposed to the different ideas in a particular manner. We all make choices about the paths we take, common or uncommon these will affect where we end up and how we experience our journey. Outcomes of these activities are path dependant and we cannot predict the choices actors will make through an activity like this or when working on innovative processes in our organisations. Perhaps we can ask; what can we do to diversify the paths people take so we don’t always get the same patterns of behaviour?

“In the end people were brought together to debate a number of ideas”

As people make links and connections in their heads, they also make links and connections across a network and this shapes and structures the development of the idea. The way people bring others into a debate, through their networks will always shape the progression of that debate. Ideas can be ‘made’ or ‘discarded’ in a very short space of time as influence shifts and develops. Leaders need to be aware of this, and its impact.

“There’s so much at work in terms of what happens, how can we ever predict the results, or untangle what really happened?”

This is true, and often the unexpected (in this case a phone call) interrupts and alters the flow and development of things, ideas and innovations leading to the non-equifinality of results, that is; we can never predict, even with a small group, how an exercise like this will play out. If we could replicate the experiment and we got a random set of results, then what does this tell us about the pursuit of the ‘best idea’?

Who based there idea on personal experience?”


Almost everyone raised their hands, and why not? However, this demonstrates how experience guides and limits the creation of the “new”. What if we could go beyond our own, limited experience? In our exercise none of the participants looked externally, their opportunity recognition being locally and internally based.

No one mentioned; the importance of collecting data from the ‘marketplace’, consumer insights and buying psychology. Does this demonstrate how strategic decisions emerge and are often crafted in smaller firms, from internal, gut feel and personal experience? Is this not a hard habit to kick? Do we always go to our experience first and do we even notice that we do this? How could we be more aware of this?

I think some people were better at persuading than others?”

This highlights how ideas can be easily quashed in organisations, by a watercooler conversation for example. What does this mean for those who are less confident, less aware of the ‘system’, compared to those who are more confident and more aware? The survival of an idea may be more due to the entrepreneurial agency of the holder of the idea, than the quality of the idea itself.

In a task such as this other skills impact the decisions we make about which ideas are better or best. Persuasion, articulation and confidence all can play a huge part in a group deciding that one idea is better than another. We observed that very early on some ideas were immediately side-lined, some not thinking their ideas were any good, whether a factor of their confidence with it, or the response from the first person they spoke to.

“Well they’ve the most successful entrepreneurs so the idea must be good”

We were struck during the exercise by the physical presence of the leader and leaders in the room, the negotiation of ideas and also status and legitimacy between leaders. Legitimacy effects play a very important role in how groups make decisions. We were working with a reasonably established group from different organisations, who had over time worked out its sense of where legitimacy and doubt lay and wonder what this would have been like in one organisation, with employees more or less ‘connected’ and confident?

How aware are we however, in groups, of the way legitimacy is determined, supported and used? As well as skill in articulation, preconceived notions about the quality of the individual or individuals presenting an idea and their competency in a particular area, greatly influence the perception of the quality of the idea being presented.

“I didn’t want to give up my idea, I really liked it” 

Our emotional affinity for “our” ideas and projects is always going to influence and bias us in selecting the “best” idea. Asking how we become unbiased is a road to futility. We must ask; how do we acknowledge, manage and use our bias productively?

Summing up…

So in a short space of time, and with a small group of people we had experienced and recognised much of the theory around the non-equifinality of the innovation process. Basically, if we say: “let’s discuss this and agree the best idea” we will be subject to a whole range of influences and processes that will impact on what we agree is “best”.

Whilst we cannot escape this, we can ask:

  • what processes are likely to be at play here?
  • what influence will they have? On what?
  • how can we manage, balance and gain greater perspective in doing this work together?

So that we can give ourselves a greater opportunity to be innovative, in the way in which we innovate. If we maintain our usual processes we may well get the results we always have, and we may miss out on some of the very best ideas which, for some of the reasons we’ve discussed here, may never get heard. Examining our process and adapting for the results we wish to achieve is hugely important and also, fascinating work to do. Furthermore we must view innovation as an interactive, time consuming process that, to be done well, needs good management, critical reflection on production and process and on-going (innovative) review in order to develop and progress the activity.


[1] Bock. A., 2014. Enabling More Active Entrepreneurial Classrooms Through Sharing, Learning & Doing, Experiential Entrepreneurship Exercises Journal, 1(1): 11-16

About us

The BIG Network provides a space for ambitious business owners to explore, challenge and resolve issues that are central to the sustainable success of their organisations. The Network is led by its members and is prefaced on openness and honesty, mutual respect and confidentiality.

For further information contact Dr Simon Raby on +44(0)1227 824740 or

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