Shifting Mental Models

 For my thesis, I’m focusing on how to drive radical innovation in large organizations….The first thing I need to figure out is: what’s radical innovation (RI)? After shuffling through a pile or literature, and random new clippings, I’ve come to the following conclusion. For me, RI means completely breaking away from previous mental models, and a way of doings thing. A RI completely changes the process that existed before it, and before the RI appeared, it was nearly (or to most at least) inconceivable that things would be done a different way. Striving to achieve RI is like walking in the dark – you don’t know when you’re heading, which makes it all the more difficult. And this makes it all the more difficult to provoke, plan or create. So how do you link RI and sustainability? RI usually implies innovation for some sort of economic gain (because that’s simply what people have been looking for up to now) – but in the case of my research, I’ll be looking at RI for economic, social and environmental gain – a whole other kettle of fish. So that’s exciting: RI with a genuine purpose. However, there are always barriers and obstacles to overcome. For example, based on my understanding of RI at the moment, I’ve realised that even though I can define it (in my own words), I can’t quite conceptualise it yet – certainly not in a retail environment (focus of my research). What would RI in a retailer actually look like? How can you really change the food retail model that exists now? Going back to farms only is not going to work. I have no idea. Or how about change the clothes retail? Do we start renting clothes? Will people accept that? I simply don’t know. Is renting clothes even radical innovation by definition? Where do you draw the line? And if I, someone passionate about sustainability and interested in innovation can’t quite conceptualise and contextualise RI in existing industries, how can I really expect others to? Maybe I’m just thinking too radical. Or maybe I just need to shift my mental models. I recently read Peter Senge’s Necessary Revolution book and recommend it. Though it’s a bit lengthy, he makes invaluable points and describes excellent examples of companies doing things differently. But I appreciate the book most for some of some of its key thoughts. For instance, Senge says that ‘no one has the answer to the question of how 6 (soon to be 9) billion people can live together sustainably. But an ultimate solution is exactly what is not needed. No one had a plan for the Industrial Revolution. No ministry was put in charge. No single business led the way. Instead, countless acts of initiative and daring created a critical mass of unstoppable changes. The Industrial Age was not planned but innovated. The next age will be no different.’ I find this inspiring although it does suggest that sustainability will just, in a way, emerge out of nowhere and that we can’t consciously push a sustainable movement forward. I guess it’s a bit the way I feel at the moment but that’s on a societal level – it will be different on a company level. It has to be different. The company level has to be part of those countless acts of initiative that Senge describes.

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