Micro-Innovation: Evolution or Revolution?

The process of mapping innovations is often one of considering where on the Evolution/Revolution spectrum they reside. This spectrum exists, like most spectrums, to set two opposite reference points from which a confident either/or placement can be made as to the nature of the innovation. As most people already know, it is the grey areas between the opposites that usually provide the most fruitful explanations as to how an innovation came to emerge, in fact, it is usually within the grey areas of this spectrum where the most interesting innovations actually occur.

This is one of themes that has been explored in a recent report published by the UK based think tank Demos. The report, Everyone’s Business, sets out to try and understand what forces are driving the current state of innovation and entrepreneurialism within the UK. As the UK economy, like most economies, searches for signs of recovery, the report states, that its long term options depend on its ability to ‘foster, support and promote new ideas, businesses and innovations’ and provide the building blocks for a foundation of entrepreneurialism. The notion of entrepreneurship is central to their argument, as it provides ‘social as well as economic value…in the twenty-first century wealth and wellbeing will belong to those countries that foster enterprise and innovation.’

But what are the forces that foster such enterprise and innovation? The researchers interviewed a broad range of entrepreneurs and innovators to try and establish what were the influential factors and motivations that drove their ambition to succeed. The research uncovered some surprisingly interesting insights, however, it’s just two of the insights that we would like to explore here, namely their relationship to risk and the types of models used to develop innovations.

It has often been thought that taking risks is central to the process of generating innovation, in fact, it has been indicated that the desire to take risks is a fundamental part of the cultural identity of successful entrepreneurs. As the report suggests, we are ‘encouraged to view entrepreneurs as risk-taking individuals – the workplace equivalent of gamblers – and indeed, many rhetorically praise the ‘risk-taking’ nature of entrepreneurs when talking about their achievements.’ However, the research found a much more pragmatic approach to risk than one would expect, one that was more ‘nuanced and balanced’ than might be attributed retrospectively. Only 25% of ‘respondents said that they were a person who “enjoyed taking risks to get ahead”, while one in five agreed with the statement, “I am very cautious about taking risks – even when the potential reward is significant.” Risk, in this instance, is seen as a ‘means to an end, not something to be pursued for its own sake.’

The second insight was that relating to the nature of the models used to develop businesses and innovations. The report highlights that a large proportion of entrepreneurs rejected the traditional cliched idea of the ‘light bulb moment’, in which a new product or service springs up ‘out of the blue’. Instead, for nearly 60% of the entrepreneurs surveyed, ‘no such light-bulb moment occurs – rather, they build on their experiences to evolve services or products in areas in which they have either worked or have been a consumer.’ This is heavily contrasted with just over 10% who ‘claimed to have designed a new product to meet a previously unmet need.’ All of which points to a model of entrepreneurialism and innovation that is based much more on ‘professional and consumer experience’, where individuals are putting their skills to work in a field where they already have a depth of knowledge and experience.

These two insights demonstrate that the cultural identity of the modern entrepreneur is more fluid than we may have first thought and that their innovations are possibly much more evolutionary than revolutionary. Of course, risk taking and radical innovation have their place, but this narrative tells a different story, a story where innovation can thrive through adapting embodied knowledge and practices. The authors of Everyone’s Business refer to these types of entrepreneurs as ‘micro innovators’, building on existing business models, rather than buccaneering revolutionaries who thrive on risk. As we have outlined in The Business Atelier and Everyday Enterprise, these figures bear much resemblance to the social artisans that flourished under the atelier system of Medieval Europe long before the industrial age. In a world where the production of intangible value is quickly becoming the benchmark of competitive difference, it is these individuals, with their ability to adapt to new social formations and cultural practices, that will slowly start to forge the innovations of tomorrow.