research, theories, models and performance indicators

Innovation is a journey from finding out how things are changing, to figuring out what we can now...

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Bill Law
26 May 2010

Innovation is a journey from finding out how things are changing, to figuring out what we can now do about them.  It is not decorating the same-old with brighter bells and more enticing whistles.  Neither is it impulse, whim or hobby-horse. 

Innovative ‘finding-and-figuring’ is evidence based.  But what serves as evidence is not so obvious.  It’s more than what comes out of experiment or survey.  We can rarely sensibly move directly from evidence to action.  We need to know what is significant in what we observe.  And what counts is not just a fact, it’s a factor.  Facts are the muddle, factors are the clues.

There is all kinds of slippage between finding a fact and recognising a factor.  Think about any evidence which gives a clue to your work.  You know...

from the beginning, any line of enquiry signposts some factors - not all
‘what works’ in one situation may not work in another

no research can pick up all the evidence

no team can focus all the significant factors

other research organises similar facts into different factors
in the end, there are still questions that have not yet been asked

We know that research is always circumscribed, usually ambiguous and often challengeable.  It makes eclectics of us all.  But we need better than pick-and-mix eclecticism.  And we get more - not just from research, but also from theory, and - then - from model-building.

Research is careful observation - as in a survey, a direct observation or a trial.  It needs a methodology to say that, although it cannot be the-whole-truth, it can be nothing-but-the-truth.  It’s a start.

Theory searches for patterns, noticing similarities and differences in what goes on.  Statistics can reveal correlates.  And moving the facts around in your head can produce a pattern which demands attention.  The search is for factors which might explain how things are.  And, without linking effects to causes, there’s no basis for action.  But let’s not rush into anything.

Models scan theories, and assemble them into a bases for action. They are models because they have, so to speak, ‘levers’ and ‘buttons’ which give us ‘movement’.  They say ‘pay attention to these factors to get these results’.  We can’t get that kind of formulation from one piece of research, nor even from one theory.  It always means taking one thing with another.  But it means more than that.

The ‘self’-‘opportunity’-‘decision’ model worked well.  It’s factors were comprehensive yet distinct, balanced yet consistent, interdisciplinary yet coherent.  This is not back-of-an-envelope stuff.  And it worked well enough for a fair few people, for much of the time, on some of the issues.  No mean achievement.  It framed our professional expertise for some decades.

The theory was reworked psychology, economics and sociology.  All three fields have moved on some way since the model was first assembled.  And, now, we increasingly work with neurology, evolutionary psychology and cultural theory.  Narrative theory links to it all.  New facts, more theories, different factors - it all calls for new models.

Performance indicators need a model of how things work.  Much of what we are given - in analyses, blueprints and frameworks - speak of factors which link ‘self and ‘opportunity’ to ‘decision’.  They suggest targets to aim for, outcomes to assess and standards to evaluate.  All assert what kinds of action are ‘a good idea’. 

Innovation needs to start again.  And in a constantly expanding range of knowledge it has a lot to go on.  This is the challenge to contemporary professionalism: shall we, again, redecorate existing models, or shall we build new ones?  Our understanding of how things work - and need to work - means we must looks elsewhere for ‘good ideas’.  Innovation needs new models, built by a resurgent professionalism.

In my dreams?

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David Winter
3:17pm 28 May 2010


I only have questions.

What's wrong with pick-and-mix eclecticism? As long as we are picking and mixing widely, wisely, sensitively and flexibly maybe that's the best way to deal with complexity...

Why do we need to replace the old models? They're not 'wrong' but they don't cover all eventualities. Don't we just need to bring new models alongside? Or possibly put them on an orthagonal axis as you have tried to do with DOTS and SeSiFU and whatever the other one was to produce something three dimensional.

Bill Law
8:37am 5 June 2010 (Edited 4:40am 14 July 2010)


Do we need models?  We are all constantly forming them - informally and will-nilly.  They are our picture of ‘what’s worth doing?’, ‘what can go wrong?’, ‘how can we deal with that?’, ‘what constitutes success?’.  They increase our repertoire for action.  The bigger the picture the more of a repertoire.

That being so, we should be constantly interrogating them - ‘how do we know?’, ‘what don’t we know?’, ‘how much more is there to know?’.

Once we do that the model starts to change.  But, in order to do its work, it needs to be coherent - no overlaps, contradictions, gaps.  And so changing one thing always means changing something else.  I’ve added a link here to a pamphlet which goes over this process in detail - a lot of detail!

I’ve much sympathy with the view that we should hang loose, take one thing at a time, act intuitively, avoid grand narratives.  So why don’t I just shut up?

I want to get into replacing big-picture models because, if we don’t do it for ourselves, somebody else will do it for us.  A profession does its own self-questioning thinking.  And there is no shortage of other interests who want to lead us - to where what we do suits them.

I’m arguing for a resurgent and reflective professionalism.  It is an absolute requirement for useful innovative practice.

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