What Andrew Hargadon teaches us about innovation

Many organization strive and struggle to innovate in order to grow (or stay alive). “Innovation” is arguably among the most popular and durable semantic fields in the business vernacular. We have to admit nevertheless, innovations that measurably affect their ecosystem (organizations, consumers, etc) are not as frequent and easy to produce as we would like.  Andrew Hargadon's excellent 2003 book, How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate, gives us a number of powerful insights into the mechanisms involved in successful innovations:

  • They are not “inventions”, they usually leverage decade-old technologies
  • They are not heroic breakthroughs, they usually involve a heterogeneous network of people and organizations
  • Innovation is, according to Hargadon, a phenomenon that emerges when we are able to form new relationships between objects, ideas and people -- effectively combining previously unrelated capabilities and technologies. "Innovators are no smarter, no more courageous than the rest of us – they are simply better connected. They find ways to exploit the networked landscape”. The many examples in this book and articles illustrate this phenomenon in a very compelling way.

So where does this take us? This is arguably Hargadon’s most powerful and practical contribution: he goes on to codify the profiles (“nexus”) and capabilities (“nexus work”, “technology brokering") needed to improve and organization’s ability to innovate. This basically aims at taking advantage of the patterns that seem to be consistent symptoms of successful innovations (see above) and build the mindsets and capabilities to provoke and nurture them.

Behind Hargadon’s work, there are decades of keen observation of the major innovations (from penicillin to the iPhone). It is also a powerful practical extension of the Actor-Network Theory (Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, John Law, etc), an approach to social theory and Science and Technology Studies. This theory supports the interpretation of major change as emerging network phenomena, providing a solid, fertile framework to understand and (attempt to) manage complexity for businesses faced with innovation challenges.

It is also a humbling framework as it flies in the face the the hero inventor and breakthrough success as the result of individual prowess.

You can read a short paper outlining Hargadon's thoughts on how breakthroughs happen here. His 2000 HBR article on Building an Innovation Factory, written with Robert I. Sutton is also of interest (and features the images, below).

-- Yassine El Ouarzazi

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