Unveiling perspectives within and beyond the innovation process
Innovation as a Text
In exploring the innovation process, considering innovation as a text provides a compelling perspective. This conceptualisation goes beyond written words, extending to diverse elements of the textuality domain as multimedia and digital landscape (Bettetini 1987), culture (Lotman 2001) or social context (Ferraro 2012). This approach enriches our understanding of innovation by examining its purpose, nature, methodology, and contributors in a way that is intended to be original.
The justification for viewing innovation as a text is deeply rooted in understanding its operational framework. For this reason, three sub-levels are introduced: the epistemic, the diegetic, and the systemic level.
The first one, epistemic, refers to how innovation, as a portion of the knowledge in a community, could be conceptualised. The second one, diegetic, is referred to as the textual structure of the innovation process, in other words, how innovation can be seen as a narrative (Genette 1980). The third is based on the systemic idea of the newest innovation perspective, primarily as it has been conceptualised in the modern ages as a structured set of building elements (Meadows 2008).
Before delving into these levels, an introduction to what innovation means and the diverse narratives associated with this concept is presented.
Narrative of Innovation
The narrative unfolds by establishing the essence of innovation as the creation of something surpassing existing notions of novelty, inherently linked with risk. As the novelty elements are expected and tautologic, an innovation is innovative, and the idea of risk as a counter side of the innovation is less expected. As a matter of fact, the transformative potential of innovation emphasises its intrinsic connection with risk-taking. Such a process occurs when a research and development department in a company takes on the responsibility of identifying a new product, constantly challenging the possible option of failure. Similarly, innovation allows exploring uncharted and challenging paths within research activities, in which the possibility of not achieving results is also implicit. Many narratives emphasise the risk behind the innovations until they become crises and disasters. For instance, a tech company invests significant resources in developing a cutting-edge product, anticipating it will revolutionise the market. However, the innovation team faces challenges in accurately gauging consumer needs, and the final product must resonate with the intended audience.
Despite the initial excitement and high expectations, the product launch received a lukewarm reception, resulting in underwhelming sales and a narrative of unmet expectations. A toxic relation between the highest and unplausible expectations, risk-related and overconfidence, could create a monster that looks unplausible even if it happened. An exemplary case happened to Theranos (Carreyrou 2018). The story of Theranos revolves around Elizabeth Holmes, a charismatic entrepreneur who founded the biotech company in 2003 with the ambitious goal of revolutionising the healthcare industry. Theranos claimed to have developed a revolutionary blood-testing technology that could perform a wide range of tests using just a few drops of blood.
However, as the company gained prominence and attracted substantial investments, investigative journalism uncovered severe issues. It was revealed that Theranos had misled investors and the public about the capabilities of its technology. The technology did not work as claimed, and the company used traditional blood-testing methods for most of its tests. Subsequent legal and regulatory actions ensued, leading to the downfall of Theranos, and Elizabeth Holmes faced fraud charges. The rise and fall of Theranos became a cautionary tale about the importance of transparency and integrity in healthcare and technology startups.
It portrays innovation as a proactive response to problem-solving and a means of progress. Exploring innovations grounded in identified problems and creating solutions for unforeseen needs are two of the significant assets of the concept. Such a case reveals how innovation is initially related to a human or socially induced factor rather than technological aspects. In being extreme, innovation has always had a technical side and a human side. An illustrative case study involving a redesigned ketchup dispenser exemplifies how innovation can be experience-driven, creating a new bottle that is more effective and simpler to use. In this case, the traditional glass bottle for ketchup proved impractical in public places such as restaurants. The difficulty in achieving precise pouring of the condiment led to a redesign. The proposed innovation involves adopting a more manageable plastic bottle, with the option to rest it on the cap rather than the traditional bottom. This modification simplifies the opening process and facilitates accurate pouring onto the dish. This redefinition extends beyond functional or material aspects, representing a radical shift in the overall experience, making the product more accessible and efficient. Also, the MP3, behind its technical nature, is a way to make music more widespread than before, leading to the creation of new devices.
Another view is to categorise the innovation process. One common and well-known view is between radical and incremental innovations. Radical innovations are groundbreaking and transformative, introducing new concepts, technologies, or business models that disrupt existing markets. Radical innovations can redefine industries and create new markets, society, and individual shapes. The exploration of game-changing innovation accentuates the paradigm shift brought about by inventions like the wheel (Bondar 2018) or the atomic bomb (Rhodes 1989). Incremental innovations are incremental improvements or modifications to existing products, processes, or services. These innovations are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, aiming to enhance or optimise existing solutions.
As innovation is, in the end, a process, in the concept categorisation, the form in which the concept is conceptualised has been a significant part of the story of innovation. One well-known model is the flow-based selecting model named funnel, which provides a structured approach to guide ideas through phases such as ideation, definition, measurement, analysis, and control (Christensen 1997). An alternative methodology revolves around a segmented structural model that assesses technological maturity. This method employs the Technology Readiness Level (TRL), a comprehensive index providing a structured framework for comprehending and navigating the complex terrain of innovation. The Technology Readiness Level (TRL) provides a comprehensive and structured approach for assessing the maturity and applicability of technology throughout its developmental stages, beginning with formulating basic principles and progressing through experimental validation, prototype development, and real-world testing; the TRL framework offers a nuanced lens for navigating the complex landscape of innovation. At the lower TRL levels, the focus is on conceptualising and experimenting with the fundamental principles of a technology. As the levels advance, the emphasis shifts towards practical validation in relevant environments, prototype demonstration, and successful integration into real-world operations. The TRL system serves as a crucial tool for decision-makers, researchers, and innovators, enabling them to evaluate the readiness of a technology for practical deployment. By categorising technology advancement into discrete levels, the TRL framework facilitates a systematic and detailed examination of its developmental progress, allowing for informed decisions and strategic planning in the dynamic field of innovation.
In conclusion, the narrative on innovation emphasises its dynamic blend of creativity, problem-solving, and risk. The cautionary tale of Theranos underscores the importance of ethics, while case studies like the redesigned ketchup dispenser show innovation responding to human needs. Categorising innovation into radical and incremental forms provides insights into its varied impact. Frameworks like the funnel and Technology Readiness Level offer systematic approaches for evaluating technology maturity. Innovation is a tapestry woven with creativity, ambition, and societal impact—a dynamic process shaped by human ingenuity and the quest for progress.
The Three Levels of Innovation Textuality
Exploring innovation as a text justified by the operational framework, the three sub-levels were introduced: epistemic (conceptualisation within community knowledge), diegetic (textual structure as a narrative), and systemic (modern structured elements perspective). This approach enhances insights into innovation’s purpose, nature, methodology, and contributors.
Episteme of Innovation
How does the innovation process take shape? Most of the innovation processes are structured according to the so-called “Waterfall Model”. This model has a linear development based on the following sequential phases: requirements gathering, system design, coding/development, integration/testing, deployment, and maintenance. It follows a document-driven process, making it less adaptable to changes. Suited for projects with stable requirements, it provides clear milestones but lacks flexibility. That’s why models have been progressively updated and partly surpassed by two other approaches: user-centric design-driven and agile.
The user-centric approach emphasises the active involvement of end-users from the start and incorporates valuable insights throughout the innovation journey. The user-centric model, starting with thorough user research and employing prototyping, is presented as an approach aiming to create products that closely align with user needs and expectations. Agile is an iterative development approach that prioritises flexibility and collaboration. It breaks projects into small increments called iterations, allowing for frequent reassessment and adaptation. It emphasises individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration, and responding to change. Scrum and Kanban are popular Agile frameworks facilitating teamwork and continuous delivery. Agile is well-suited for dynamic projects with evolving requirements. The evolution of innovation projects is moving towards a more flexible structure, embracing user-centric and agile approaches. This trend is characterised by an increased emphasis on user involvement and the adoption of shorter, more iterative design cycles. The synergy between these approaches challenges the traditional distinction between distinct phases, fostering a more integrated and dynamic development process. This transformation underscores the pivotal role of user engagement and rapid iteration as key features in the contemporary innovation landscape. Building on Lotman’s approaches (1987), which categorise culture into textual and grammatical — where the former is characterised by the fluid nature of the text and the latter adheres to normative structures — we can infer that the introduction of agile and user-centric approaches may lead to a more flexible, textually oriented paradigm. In this context, the emphasis shifts towards favouring flow over rigid rules, reflecting a departure from normative-based structures towards a more adaptable and dynamic approach.
The concept of “diegesis” refers to narrative elements within a story that are part of the fictional world, experienced by characters directly. It encompasses events, sounds, and information within the narrative known to the characters. Diegetic elements contribute to the immersive storytelling experience, distinguishing them from non-diegetic elements external to the story world. How can an innovation process be seen as diegetic? Of course, its narrative part has a significant role. This level explores how the deployment of innovation can be akin to a narrative or storytelling-based text, manifesting in diverse forms such as startups, university spin-offs, corporate initiatives, and public funding projects. So there is a narrative in the rising innovation, including many successful (Microsoft NT OS in Zachary 1999) and tragic experiences (Theranos in Carreyrou 2018). There is also a diegetic aspect of the innovation process per se, which implies how a process takes shape, how phases are organised according to each other, how they are scheduled, and the effort involved. The paradigm on which this model is based is called WBS, i.e. Work Breakdown Structure. A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a hierarchical decomposition of a project into smaller, manageable components. It organises tasks and deliverables in a structured hierarchy, allowing for clear scope definition and project visualisation. Each level in the WBS represents increasingly detailed work packages, aiding in project planning, scheduling, and resource allocation. It is a fundamental tool for project management, facilitating control, monitoring, and effective communication among stakeholders.
As the WBS is deliverable- and chronological-oriented, description and visual representation are crucial. Within the text that describes WBS, peculiar thinking and rendering tools are expected, such as tables to present how the work is structured or charts to show how the story would take place. Among these, a crucial role is accepted by the so-called Gantt Diagram. A Gantt chart is a visual project management tool that illustrates a project schedule over time. It displays tasks as horizontal bars along a timeline, with the length of each bar representing the task duration. Gantt charts help project managers and teams visualise project timelines, dependencies, and progress briefly. They are widely used for planning, scheduling, and tracking project activities.
In conclusion, the concept of “diegesis” sheds light on the narrative elements within the innovation process, emphasising its storytelling aspects. The text illustrates how the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a pivotal tool in project management, offering a hierarchical view of project components and aiding in planning and control. The visual representation of project schedules, as exemplified by Gantt charts, further enhances the understanding of timelines, dependencies, and progress in diverse innovation initiatives.
Regarding the systemic level of innovation, a shift from an individual-centric approach to a more systemic organisation highlights the history of innovation in the 19th century. One of the key figures in this transition was Vannevar Bush, who played a pivotal role in assisting President Roosevelt in defining science policies within the US administration. Bush’s challenge to the romantic notion of solitary innovation, advocating for a collective effort, sets the stage for large-scale collaborative projects in contemporary times, reflecting a shift from individualistic practices. The ideas of Vannevar Bush are presented as foundational to understanding the necessity of organisational coordination and management in scientific and technological progress. After his work, the expression “big science,” namely the idea of managing the innovation process as an organised and independent set of systems, becomes pivotal, making the textual perspective even more articulated.
Such changes in the size, aspirations, and impact of innovation. A broader spectrum of societal incidents, more challenging projects, and higher risks. Automation in the innovation process, such as lab automation and, most recently, AI, represents the current and near-future challenges and system updates.
In conclusion, viewing innovation as a text enriches our understanding by exploring its purpose, nature, and contributors. The narrative of innovation emphasises its dynamic blend of creativity, problem-solving, and risk, as illustrated by the cautionary tale of Theranos and experience-driven innovations like the redesigned ketchup dispenser. Categorising innovation into radical and incremental forms provides insights into its varied impact, while frameworks like the funnel and Technology Readiness Level offer systematic approaches for evaluating technology maturity. Innovation is a tapestry woven with creativity, ambition, and societal impact—a dynamic process shaped by human ingenuity and the quest for progress. Exploring innovation as a text further justifies its three sub-levels: epistemic, diegetic, and systemic, offering valuable insights into innovation’s operational framework. The epistemic level delves into the conceptualisation of innovation within community knowledge, while the diegetic level examines the innovation process as a narrative. Lastly, the systemic level, influenced by historical shifts like Vannevar Bush’s advocacy for a more systemic approach, reflects on innovation’s size, aspirations, and impact in the 19th century and beyond.
Further challenges are expected, such as lab automation and AI in the innovation process, requiring more effective thinking tools in the diegetic realm and a broader, complex (as dynamic) approach in the epistemic domain. These aspects will be explored in the following paper of this series, featured in upcoming Cruscotti issues.
Bettetini, G. (1987). Il segno dell’informatica. I nuovi strumenti del comunicare: dal videogioco all’intelligenza artificiale, ed Bombiani.
Bondar, I. (2018). Prehistoric innovations: Wheels and wheeled vehicles, Acta Archaeologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae.
Carreyrou, J. (2018). Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. Knopf.
Christensen, C. M. (1997). The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Harvard Business Review Press.
Ferraro, F. (2012), Fondamenti di Teoria sociosemiotica. La visione “neoclassica”, Aracne edizioni.
Genette, G. (1980). Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Cornell University Press.
Lotman, J. M. (2001). Tipologia della cultura, ed Bompiani.
Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Rhodes, R. (1989). The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon & Schuster.
Zachary, G. P. (1998). Showstopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft. Free Press.
Note: This article was written with the support of artificial intelligence (ChatGPT) to summarize some of the known information in the literature.
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