The political process of getting innovation done

Innovation is often about politics. Together with my excellent colleague Ragnvald Sannes I run a course called Strategic Business Development and Innovation (it is done in Norwegian, but if you are interested, we would be glad to export the concept, in English), where we take groups of students through an innovation process (with their own, very real, projects) over two semesters. The course is done in cooperation with Accenture’s Technology Lab in Sophia Antipolis and is one of the most enjoyable things I do as a teacher.

Anyway. This note is to discuss something which came up in a web conference today – the political side of doing innovation. Many of the students we have come from public organizations, from the health care industry, or from educational or research-based institutions. In all of them (well, actually, in all organizations, but more so in those where profit is not the yardstick that trumps everything) politics are important, to the point where a project’s success depends on it. Since a number of our students also are engineers and/or IT people, with a very straightforward and rationalistic view of how things should be done (if the solution is better than the current one, well, then why don’t we adopt it?), I need to explain the nature of political processes in organizations.

I am not an expert in that particular field, but I have been involved in a few projects where politics have been important – and have found the work of March, Cohen and Olsen very useful – not just as theory, but also as a very practical checklist. These three professors are famous for the Garbage Can Model, explained in the classic article Cohen, M. D., J. G. March and J. P. Olsen (1972). “A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice.” Administrative Science Quarterly 17(1). This article (which can be found here) is cited more than 6000 times and makes a lot of sense to me, but the it is not easy to understand (and that is not just because the specification of the model is in Fortran source code.) It posits that politically oriented organizations (they studied universities in particular, which for most purposes are anarchies) makes decisions by constructing “garbage cans” (one for each decision) and that the garbage can is a meeting point for choices, problems, solutions, and decision makers (participants), heavily dependent on energy. Decisions seek decision makers, solutions seek problems, and vice versa. Getting things done in such an environment means constructing these garbage cans and filling them with the right combination of problems, solutions, choices and participants.

This sounds rather theoretical, and is. Fortunately, March and Olsen wrote an (in my opinion) excellent book (Cohen, M. D. and J. G. March (1986). Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press.) a few years later, with less theory and more application. Based on interviews with a number of university presidents as well as their garbage can model, they discuss the nature of getting things done in a university environment, where there is ambiguity of purpose, power, experience and success. They finish with a list of eight basic tactics for getting things done – probably at the instigation of Harvard Business School Press, which primarily caters to business people and want applicability, not just description.

I have found this list tremendously useful when trying to get decisions made – and have observed others doing this both very well and very badly. Here it is, with their points in boldface and my (probably imperfect, it is a few years since I read this) interpretation appended:

  1. Spend time. Getting things done will take time – you need to talk to people, create language, make people see your point. If you are not willing to spend that time, you might make some decisions, but people will not follow them. Decision making is social, so decision makers in these environments need to be. The winners in political organizations are often those with the most time – which is why many universities are dominated by the administration rather than the faculty, who have other calls for their time and do not come in to the office every day. (See this cartoon for an excellent description).
  2. Persist. One of the most frustrating things (I have seen this when businessmen come in to lead political organizations, several times) in a political setting is the decisions seldom seem to really be taken – there might be a decision, but every time it comes up, it get revisited. In other words, a decision made can always be raised again – so never give up, you can always get the organization to reconsider, either the same decision directly or the same decision dressed up in new language.
  3. Exchange status for substance. As someone said at some point, it is amazing what you can get done if you are prepared to forgo recognition for it. There are many leaders who want to look good and make decisions, but don’t have the knowledge or energy to do so. Make decisions easy for them – you can get a lot done if you make decision-makers look good in the process.
  4. Facilitate opposition participation. Rather than trying to overpower the opposition, find ways for them to participate in the new way of doing things. This is one of the reason why processes and fields frequently get renamed – to allow groups to continue doing what they are doing or want to do, but in new contexts.
  5. Overload the system (to change decision making style). Decision-making time expands to fill the entire time available (alternatively, a normal meeting is over when everything is said, an academic meeting is over when everything has been said by everyone.) By giving the system lots of decisions to make (i.e., many ), this style changes – and you can get your decision through because nobody has enough time or energy to give it the full treatment.
  6. Provide garbage cans. Provide arenas for discussion as distractions, to consume energy from decision-makers.
  7. Manage unobtrusively. You can get things changed by changing small things, and in succession. I have seen examples where you get a strategic goal set up that everyone can agree to but few define (“make us a more knowledge-based organization”), get resources allocated to it, and then propose lots of projects under this heading – which now is about fulfillment of a strategy (albeit redefined) rather than an entirely new strategic direction.
  8. Interpret history. Volunteer to write meeting minutes, and distribute them late enough that most participants have forgotten the details. History, traditionally, is written by the winners (except, perhaps, for the Spanish Civil War,) but you can make it the other way around – that you become the winner by writing history.

(After writing most of this I found this blog post by David Maister which summarizes this much better than me, in the context of professional service firms): Understanding politics is very much about recognizing these tactics and using them. It may seem Machiavellian, but then Machiavelli was one of the first political theorists and knew what he was talking about.

And now I feel a need to see the next episode of House of Cards on Netflix. Garbage cans in action…

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2 thoughts on “The political process of getting innovation done

  1. Vaughan Merlyn

    Thanks for posting this, Espen – clear and compelling! As you know, I’ve been a student of organizational change – especially related to IT transformations – for many years. Your list of 8 points resonate strongly. The strange fact is that, with all due respect, there’s nothing really new here – and yet business leaders ignore these lessons time and time again. They mistake smoke and noise for real change leadership – changes are launched with sound and fury, and disappear some time later with a whimper – “Declare success and move on!”

  2. Pingback: Politikkstrategi–ledelse i uklare organisasjoner | Tversover

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