David H. Cropley and Arthur J. Cropley, The Psychology of Innovation in Organizations (Cambridge University Press, New York. 2015. 260 pages.)

The purpose of The Psychology of Innovation in Organizations is to show that innovation is a human activity, a complicated, paradoxical, and difficult to manage activity. The authors understand innovation through the lens of psychology, a lens which allows them to see innovation as more than a business term. It’s a necessity for a healthy society. They describe innovation as something we will never be comfortable with–if we become comfortable with anything, it should be constant adaptation.

These and other ideas in the book are worth sharing. However, most of Cropley’s & Cropley’s original thinking is buried beneath an academic form of writing that is difficult to parse. The authors have done the hard work of reading nearly everything on innovation. But they stopped short of doing the hard work of distilling what is necessary for a prospective innovator. If their message were laid out directly, the book would work much better, and in half the time. The Psychology of Innovations in Organizations should be thought of as less of a book than a research resource. Yet, it’s a valuable resource.

What Innovation Is

The value begins when they define innovation, a surprisingly difficult task for such a common word. Cropley & Cropley use the term to mean “novelty that is useful” (emphasis added). Creativity is not enough–new ideas must be practical. The authors introduce the term “pseudo-creativity” as a way of marking new ideas that are only new because they are non-conformist. Creative ideas must be new and conformist. That is, they must conform to the mission of the organization.

They give academic backing to Edison’s phrase that invention is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. The 1% inspiration is the “idea generation” phase of innovation; the 99% perspiration is the implementation phase of innovation. For Cropley & Cropley, implementation comes from the four “building blocks of innovation” — product, process, person, and press.

“Product” refers to the output of innovation–products must be new and useful to be innovative. “Process” refers to the cognitive processes that generate innovation. Cropley & Cropley describe “divergent thinking” as the cognitive process that generates novelty, while “convergent thinking” is the cognitive process that makes new ideas useful. Divergent thinking results from our creativity, while convergent thinking results from our expertise.

“Person” refers to the motivations and personalities of an individual. Cropley & Cropley point out that some people are naturally more attuned to generating new ideas, while others are better suited to fitting new ideas into useful categories. “Press” is their term for environment, which spans from the environment within an organization to the culture of a society. Cropley & Cropley conclude that societies naturally balance openness to innovation with resistance to innovation. If the balance is tipped too far one way or another, progress halts. In other words, too much innovation is possible: “There are rules about breaking the rules.” Successful innovators break the rules within acceptable limits. What’s defined as “acceptable” is the difference between an open society and a closed society, but all societies draw the line at some point.

At the individual level, people desire but reject creativity — at the conscious level we tend to say innovation is good; at an unconscious level we are skeptical.

All of the “ands” of the innovation process (idea generation and application) lead to paradoxes. Those paradoxes must be managed. Indeed, they offer a new definition of the role of managers in the 21st century: paradox balancers. The manager’s role is to understand the inherent tension between novelty and applicability. Managers should understand the different personalities, processes, and environments that foster novelty and applicability, and then balance all of the above in favor of innovation (but not too much innovation).

Their list of paradoxes range from the “meta” level to the individual level, as if the tension between “change” and “stay the same” is ubiquitous to human experience. The “uber-paradox,” as they describe it, is the paradox that society has benefitted tremendously from innovations in the economy, healthcare, and education. Yet, society has also suffered tremendous pain from innovations like chemical weapons and sophisticated crime. At the individual level, people desire but reject creativity — at the conscious level we tend to say innovation is good; at an unconscious level we are skeptical.

What does it mean for The Military?

One value of the book is to show the divide between what is possible in innovation management and what military organizations actually do. Cropley & Cropley argue that managers should be armed with full scale models of innovation, and that these models should complement “efficiency models” in organizations (i.e. how much is my organization producing and consuming?) With a bit of honest introspection, could the average military organization claim any formal model of innovation? Commanders at all levels stress the importance of innovative thinking, but how much time do they have to put calculated thought into the measurement of innovation?

Cropley’s & Cropley’s model is at times a bit much to follow — they finish the book with a 168-item checklist for innovation managers — but the model is evidence of the rigor that is possible for innovation management. We apply extensive rigor in other areas of the military — we wouldn’t think twice about asking a jet mechanic to follow a 168-step procedure. Can we do the same for the innovation processes we manage?

Captain Brad DeWees is an instructor of political science in the United States Air Force Academy’s Department of Political Science. He teaches courses on American government and a senior seminar titled “Innovation in Government.” Captain DeWees was the top overall graduate from the Air Force Academy’s class of 2009. He is a Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) and Air Liaison Officer (ALO) by career, and has deployed to Afghanistan.

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