Exploiting chaos: an invitation to innovation

MAIM 2014 Degree show

Like many things in life, the journey of MA Innovation Management course is a string of chaotic events happened in my last two years. ‘What is MAIM’ is always an unsettling puzzle without a single ‘right’ answer. When I stepped into the course, I thought this course would give us THE ultimate innovation manual so that we could just follow the steps and succeed. Fortunately, I was wrong and MAIM is not like many other old school education that just teach the things that are easy to teach rather than things needed to learn. In MAIM, there are no text books of innovation but reading lists ranging from design, sociology, management, philosophy and so on. There are no examinations but endless projects figuring things out and proposing solutions for organisational issues, such as uncertainty, innovation cultures and many other things. There are no remembering-the-slides lectures but face to face discussions and workshops with various professional practitioners from all fields (i.e. TFL, Nokia, Whatif!, Microsoft, etc.).

Plus, there are 28 of us with 18 different nationalities. It was just chaotic.

Since the beginning, I have been trying to make sense of it all and with great difficulties explaining to many friends and family what I was doing at Central Saint Martins not as a fashion designer. However, this course is perhaps like many things in life, which can only be better understood with hindsight. Until very recently, there had been nothing to share.

Differences and Identities

At the beginning, many of us were annoyed by the fact how we could be so different in our class. Despite the appreciation of the differences in our experiences, there were problems. It was hard to communicate and synchronise when people think in different ways. It was difficult to collaborate when each believed in different approaches. There were and still are differences in cultural, educational and professional backgrounds. Many times in the early projects, we had fought on details and spent hours in meetings like many organisations do. We were hungry for efficiency and the differences were just the obstacle on its way. Two years from then, we have become the happy believers and do-ers in differences. We know, most of the time, innovation can only blossom in the diversity of perspectives and in various ways of doing things. It brings new opportunities to re-examine the problem in a different way. It builds the ability and courage to explore future and to be a disruptive force. Perhaps we are at the new era that the pursuit of efficiency can only drive the growth of organisation to a limit where the scope of effectiveness opens a new window of innovation to economies and societies.

There is another aspect of learning of difference that I hold more dearly as a person. Since it is an art&design institution, there is a vibe of being yourself. Of course, there are more people who dress more arty and standing out in my friends’ stereotype imagination. However, underneath the surface, I feel there is a strong mentality of pursing originality. To be original, it needs a very good understanding of yourself. You need to know the difference you were born and grown up with, which set you apart from your peers, parents and colleagues. The clarity of who we are and where we go is just as important as the vision and strategy of an organisation. Like many theories and practices of innovation, the self-identities build up the ability of knowing what you want and who you are but most importantly it gives the courage of saying no to abundance of choices. In the age of globalisation and new technology, we perhaps are the generation that faces more choices and options than ever. As Lynda Gratton and Richard Florida argued, the patterns of work and life are changing, and the future can be shockingly different to the past. In this new age, the sense of ‘self’ identities and believes may become more important as a core ability than many redundant knowledge in schools.

Perhaps as Charles Handy once suggested, the education in essence should give someone the self believe that enables them to take charge of their own future. Fortunately, MAIM to me is exactly one of those ideal education programmes that challenge and build my identities – the sense of direction- for my career and life.

Thinking and Doing

Recently, a discussion with an old colleague made me realised that I have changed a lot. It wasn’t the physical changes of more wrinkles and higher weight that surprised me (sometimes they do though). It was the way I think and act that is different to two years ago. Being a MAIMer for two years, I have become a believer of design. The design means a lot more than a product and a new appearance. It is the processes and ways of reframing and approaching problems. It needs the skills of being visual and analytical at the same time. It requires the ability of being a lateral thinker that navigates through non-linear patterns. I have become also a lover of prototyping. It gives meanings to failures and pleasure to risk-taking. Be lean and rapid was the motto for our projects. Actions speak louder than words. I also set myself as one of the reflectional practitioners that require reviews and reflections upon actions. I am now a fan of future. Uncertainty is not an obscure black hole any more as I understand the future is already here while it is not equally distributed. The ‘unknown-unknown’ territory exists outside the known and it demands us to push our boundaries, harder and harder. Because in essence future is where innovation comes from.

In the history of organisational structures, often the role of management didn’t required any qualification or trainings. The concept of business school was once refused by Oxbridge in late 50s. The best qualification for management at that time was generally thought to have an accountancy qualification. I guess, it may be the origin of thoughts regarding risk, uncertainty and unknown as undesirable. It may be the birth place of massive excel files means ‘true’ business. I am not sure whether we are standing at the new phase of management or not since everything is happening so fast and chaotic. I am not sure if there will be one right answer for innovation and a right definition for MA Innovation Management in a given time. But as Dr Jamie Brassett once explained, the good thing of MAIM itself is that we’ve built the capability of keeping and innovating the course and ourselves year by year.

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