Harnessing the Complexity of Innovation

Harnessing the Complexity of Innovation

Ton Jörg (University of Utrecht, Utrecht, The Netherlands) and Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes (AKKA Architects, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/ijkss.2013070101
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The concept of innovation is hard to define and, consequently, difficult to put into practice. It is argued that the actual complexity of innovation is too much taken for granted. In this article the focus is on analyzing the very complexity of innovation, its dynamics and potential for practice. Innovation is taken as linked to creativity, by the processes of learning, thinking and knowing. Henceforth the complex dynamics of innovation is a time-related process. The ensemble of two partners and their interaction is the basic dynamic unit for innovation. Modeling this unit within the new framework of complexity shows innovation to be a (self-) generative kind of process, depending on the context with its conditions. These may be called “the conditions of possibility for innovation”. These conditions, which are closely linked to facilitating the quality of interaction and relationships between the partners in interaction, within a community of interaction, may be shown to unravel innovation as a nonlinear generative process with potential nonlinear effects over time. Innovation is shown to be a complex process at both the individual and the collective level. The complexity perspective taken here shows the new way of thinking in complexity about the complex nature of innovation. Organizing complexity is the key for generating potential nonlinear effects of learning, thinking and knowing as emergent effects, thriving on human interaction. So, innovation is thriving on complexity, which, in turn, is thriving on interaction within generative relationships in communities of interaction. To describe how complexity may be ‘at work’ in organizations, and to organize it in a more successful way, a different framing of complexity and a corresponding new language of complexity is urgently needed, to turn complexity into effective complexity within complex organizations.
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The Complex Nature Of Innovation

In essence, innovating simply means doing something new that didn’t exist before, or doing something in a new way, a way that hasn’t been done before. Innovation is both in the process and in the resulting product.

In practice, innovation and its complexity are mostly taken for granted. The general perception of innovation is one of misunderstanding its true nature (Rossi et al., 2010). Numerous scholars, professionals and experts have attempted to dissect it, define it and explain it. Yet, innovation is still not fully understood, just because of its complexity. Although we talk about innovation rather often, we still aren’t sure of what it is, how it ‘works’, how to organize and create it, how to facilitate the conditions for it, how to repeat it. So, the question remains: What is innovation? And how can we explain the complex nature of innovation? These are the key questions we want to deal with.

Complexity is a rather unusual concept; we ‘simply’ cannot see it. For that reason we easily take complexity for granted without realising how it may actually ‘work’ in practice (Mitchell, 2011). According to Leslie Kuhn (1999), we need “a complexity based lens through which organizational life may be viewed” (p. 7) to get a better view of the complexity involved. She continues “looking through a complexity lens we see organizations as comprising a number of interacting, self-organizing, dynamic and emergent entities” (p. 11). Once we realise how complexity may be ‘at work’ in practice, we may realise that complexity may actually be taken as self-potentiating (Rescher, 1998, p. 28). This is not easy to understand. To be able to understand the complexity of innovation, however, we have to understand complexity as being part of the very complexity of innovation. Only by understanding this complexity, we may start to know how innovation may be ‘at work’ in the real. Understanding this complexity, then, may be of use for facilitating and organizing innovation within companies and organisations. Understanding innovation means understanding innovation as a time-related process. Understanding innovation means understanding innovation as a complex generative process. This notion of the generative implies creativity, which can be linked to concepts like generative processes of learning, thinking and knowing. Like Peter Senge, we may take this kind of generative learning as “learning that enhances our capacity to create” (Senge, 1990, p. 284). Our focus is on the conditions of possibility that encourage innovation as a complex generative process, thriving on interaction, with potential nonlinear effects over time. We view social interaction, with its communication processes, as the locus for innovation (cf. Rossi et al., 2010, p. 154). With this different framing of organizing innovation through organizing social interaction, then, we may become able to open up new spaces of possibility, thereby showing the potential amplification and development of new knowledge in the partners of that interaction (Nonaka, 2005, p. 166) Henceforth, the complexity perspective on innovation implies possibilities, that go way beyond “the traditional ‘linear’ model of innovation” (Rossi et al., 2011, p. 153).

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