Otherness and Innovation – a Needed Pairing?

Nowadays, it seems like every organisation wants to be innovative – or at least says they want to be. And why wouldn’t they? In a world in flux, where disruption is faced in all arenas (social, economic, environmental, epistemological), and where new technologies offer new opportunities and new chances, sticking with the same old, same old is not likely to get you far.

Of course incremental changes and continuous improvement are still worthwhile. But in a hyper-connected, hyper-speed world, the pressure for innovation, to change what you do, not just how you do it, is immense. Any strategy based on the assumption that things will not change in the near future is likely to be quickly undone by events.

Yet the gap between proclamations of support for innovation and the actual doing of innovation is large. Despite an increased focus on innovation, it sometimes seems that there is a lot more “innovation theatre” than there is innovation doing. Why, if there is such a desire and need for innovation, is the commitment, the investment and the ability to innovate still lacking?

In this somewhat personal and speculative reflection, I suggest that this has to do, in part, with the challenge of really embracing difference and “otherness”. This view is one that has come from looking inwards – by considering my own personal innovation journey and three of my “otherness” travel companions: gayness, trauma, and disability. From there, I attempt to consider some larger possible implications.

The Link Between Innovation and Difference

To begin with, I’d first like to consider why difference matters? Why does innovation need difference?

Innovation is essentially about seeing or understanding the world differently, of realising not only that the world could be other than it is, but that there are new, unexplored possibilities of how to get there.

Therefore a prerequisite for innovation is thinking differently.

Without variation from existing thinking, from existing paradigms, from existing understandings of what is and what is possible, then innovation will only happen by accident, or in response to a force such as a crisis or event that makes the status quo untenable. If innovation is wanted as a deliberate act, as something that is chosen or sought rather than as a reactive or externally driven activity, then it requires different thinking or thinking differently.

Yet where does such different thinking come from? What provides the spark for diverging from what has gone before?

I think it’s important to recognise that there are many ways that such different thinking can arise. It can come from the mixing of knowledge in new ways. It can come from putting together people from different contexts. It can come from shaking up existing conventions and practices – everything from changing the physical environment, to the application of disciplines and methods for seeing the world differently, such as futures or design thinking. It can come from experimentation and trying out different ideas, and seeing how reality responds. It can come from challenging the status quo and from asking questions about what else might be. It can come from competition and the need to differentiate, to stand out in some way, to be different from competitors. It can come from art, the act of exploring and articulating/capturing different notions and possibilities. It can come from altered states of thinking, whether induced (e.g. through drugs) or cultivated (e.g. through meditation and mindfulness). It can come from serendipity. And increasingly it might even come from the non-human, through the application of machine learning and innovation that will no longer be bound by, and limited, to human preconceptions and experience.

All of these can be important mechanisms for generating and fostering divergent and different thinking, and I think many of us are aware even anecdotally that each can have their own advantages (and drawbacks). More formally, many organisations have dabbled with some mixture of these, and some have even poured considerable time, effort and investment into trying to ensure that innovation, and different thinking, is entrenched as a capability and practice.

But I want to ask – if the world is really changing, and one accepts that exponential changes in technologies means that the pace of change will only accelerate, then will such sources of different thinking be sufficient? Many organisations still have difficulty in really engaging with innovation, even with the application of increasingly sophisticated methods and investment. If we had mastered innovation, you would no longer have the rise and fall of companies, or governments struggling to understand and deliver on citizen needs.  Might it be then that organisations need to not only explore new ways of encouraging different thinking, but actively seek out and foster difference?

By this, I do not mean looking for edge cases or engaging in open innovation practices to ensure the involvement of people from very different contexts, though these can be important in fostering innovation. Nor do I mean hiring people from different backgrounds, though this too is valuable.

Rather, what I suggest is something fundamentally more personal and messy, something perhaps quite antagonistic to traditional organisations. More than safe (and sometimes impersonal) notions of diversity are needed. I suggest that if an organisation really seeks to be innovative, if it really seeks to encourage and engage with different thinking, it needs to invite in the other, it needs to embrace, promote and foster “otherness”. It needs not simply include diversity, it needs to help generate and support “otherness”.

The Difference of Otherness

What do I mean by that? What is otherness? And what makes it different to other forms of difference?

There are many ways to view and understand it (and this piece gives a great overview of otherness as a sociological concept), but I am using it as a shorthand for that fundamental feeling of being different from the norm. For that intrinsic and visceral sense of not being like “everyone else”, of not fitting in with the dominant sense of what is expected, of what it is understood that people will generally be. Generally, I mean otherness as not some incidental difference, but something that is core to the understanding of a person’s identity.

Otherness, then, can be the fundamentally discomfiting feeling of knowing that your experience is not that of most others. The otherness, the difference may not even be noticeable to others, but it is something that inevitably reminds the holder of it that they are different at some deep level, that they do not fit in some way with the conventional, with the expected and the assumed, with the everyday.

Otherness can take many different forms, and by nature of being about difference, what is other can and will vary and differ between contexts, between different settings, and between different populations and groups, and between times. This variety means that it may not be wise to generalise too much about otherness, but nonetheless, I suggest that there is an essential connection between otherness and innovation.

Why do I think that otherness is so important to innovation? What does it offer that other methods of engendering different thinking don’t?

To explain, I am going to take a look at the idea of otherness and its connection to innovation from my personal experience. The following is very much a personal reflection, and thus my intent to generalise from it could be quite misplaced. The risk in seeing the world differently is that sometimes the view is misleading. Having said that, I hope this reflection might have some bearing for broader discussions of innovation. I welcome the views of others as to whether this, or elements of it, might be reflective of broader experience.

Gayness as a Source of Otherness

The first dimension of otherness that I’d like to reflect on is that of being a gay man. To be gay involves a number of dimensions of otherness that are relevant to innovation. [Caveat: Of course the experience of being gay is no more universal than that of being a man or being human. The experience of what it is to be gay is also changing in many countries in line with a broader acceptance and openness to homosexuality and other forms of difference. Your mileage may vary.]

One of these is simply the act of discovering, and perhaps grappling with, one’s sexual identity and that it may not be the same as the “default”, that you might be different from the norm. For me it involved some deep questioning – what am I? Who am I? Which category, which box do I fit into? What does that mean? What does that mean for me in the present? For my future? It can be a daunting process of self-navigation and self-identification. At its core though, it is an act of accepting, at some level, difference.

Once someone has questioned, though not necessarily by choice, the status quo, the default assumption about what is normal or expected, they may have a greater ability and willingness to question other conventions, other assumed and presumed shared shibboleths. If this “big thing” can be questioned, why cannot other things? If sexuality, something that seemed to be part of the bedrock, is no longer fundamental, what else is up for challenge? Why should other things be the way they are, just because they have been? To be gay then, can help foster the mindset of an innovator, of someone who is prepared (or forced) to challenge the expected, and to ask “what if it was different?”

Being gay also involves an element of seeing the world through multiple lenses. Everyday encounters can be overlaid with an element of looking for signs of others who are similar, of searching for indications that there are others like you. Normal interactions or otherwise mundane situations can involve elements of reflecting on what other people are thinking – do they think that I’m gay? What are they thinking about me? The simple act of being gay can introduce oneself to ambiguity, to nuance.

This can be magnified if you are not “out”, or even just not out in a particular setting. In such cases it can be a matter of concealing part of who you are – which can perhaps be seen as a form of deep training in both adaptation (adjusting to the context) and in developing and selling an idea (a different version of yourself). Both of these skills that innovators can find very useful, for putting forward business cases or pitches to people in, and from, varied contexts. In other situations, being gay involves a degree of practical instruction in the importance of “reading your audience” and getting a sense of the lay of the social land (and its potential and real threats).

In a related way, another aspect of innovation being can provide a form of induction into, is the notion of risk. Innovation is inherently about understanding risk and uncertainty – that when doing something truly new, you cannot be sure what will happen. Likewise, being gay can involve extensive engagement with notions risk and uncertainty – what if I come out and I’m not accepted? What if people at work care? What if I go out and someone shouts abuse (or worse)? What if I talk to someone I’m interested in and they are not gay? What if …? (“What if” – the basic, rough, tool of any scenario planning exercise, of any innovation process that recognises that contingencies need to be considered even if you can’t necessarily imagine what they’ll be.) While continual exposure to thinking about risk can perhaps make some people more averse to risk, to uncertainty, I think that for many of us it actually ensure that we put things into perspective, to note risk, but recognise that, as with innovation, life involves risk. That bad things might happen, but the risk of not trying is too great.

These and other elements, then feed into gay culture/subcultures, where there are different signals, different meanings and subtexts, different protocols and understandings that can often operate within plain sight, but that speak very differently to those in the know. In this way, the otherness of gayness can help provide training in understanding multiple layers of meaning, in recognising the (co)existence of different versions of reality, and pointing to different possibilities than that of the dominant paradigm. It even provides a cultural history that reinforces that sometimes change does not happen easily; that no matter how simple or seemingly right an idea might be, there will likely be resistance and pushback to change.

The otherness can also be a constant companion in additional ways. Casual conversations can bring up or reinforce the otherness – a casual assumption of the gender of a partner, or even assumptions about common experience can act as reminders of otherness. Such reminders can also act as a prompt – gayness, as a not always obvious form of otherness, can involve a continual act of outing oneself, of declaring that you are other (sometimes as just a point of acknowledgement, sometimes as a matter of defiance, sometimes with a note of a resignation).

While by no means assured, I think such repeated declarations of otherness (which may not even be meaningful or significant to those hearing them) can help foster a preparedness for putting forward ideas that are different. (On the other hand, sometimes it can also act as a force for the opposite, where a continual awareness of otherness can sometimes result in a desire for sameness, for fitting-in, rather than adding yet another layer of difference).

There is, of course, no guarantee. I am not arguing that being gay ensures innovativeness, nor that these experiences will be uniform or universal. However, through its role as a contributor of otherness, I am suggesting that for many gayness does inadvertently provide a training ground for many of the qualities an innovator needs: challenging the status quo, engaging with ambiguity, reading the room, engaging with risk and uncertainty, with seeing reality through multiple perspectives, with expressing different possibilities, and with practice pushing through any fears or concerns about what others might think in order to share what you think, what your ideas are.

Trauma as a Source of Otherness

Another form of difference that has helped shape my experience of otherness is that of being on the receiving end of trauma. While my trauma was only one incident, one relatively brief experience, for me it changed everything and took years to come to grips with. [Even more than gayness, the experience of trauma will vary, coming as it can in so many different ways. However, like gayness, I suggest there are some commonalities to the otherness accompanying trauma that are relevant to innovation.]

I found that trauma can contribute to otherness in a range of forms. Firstly, trauma can shape your worldview and your expectations of the world. Trauma changes your defaults. This can manifest in different ways. For instance, assumptions that good things will happen, that there are things to look forward to and that best-laid plans may come true, can become fragile, not believable, or even, at times, almost alien and untenable. Trauma can effectively force a different understanding of the world and how it works from the one you had. This different view can be hard to explain or convey to others. It is, after all, not rational – or rather to a part of your brain it is perhaps extremely rational. From the point of view of innovation, this otherness gives a raw and unforgettable insight into how the same world can be experienced in dramatically different ways. And by showing the world in very different ways, by forcing different thinking about the world, it provides insight into very different possibilities – and therefore different options, and therefore different ideas.

Secondly, trauma can lead to behaviours and moods that do not seem normal, that do not make sense, because they are driven by factors at quite a primal level, as the brain tries to make sense of something incomprehensible. Emotions can become difficult, and there can be parts of your own self that, at times, just feel fraught. Actions can seem self-destructive or foolish and yet seemingly unavoidable. In some ways then, trauma can make part of yourself the “other”, where the whole does not feel integrated and parts of yourself seemingly unknowable. It can also provide a clear sense of otherness to others – that something is different about you, that you don’t act in understandable ways (and that’s even if others happen to know your context). This is a similarity with innovation. Innovation too can be deeply challenging to people – it can make people react in ways they don’t necessarily understand themselves as their understanding of the world shifts beneath them.

Thirdly, for me the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder and dealing with my PTSD, of processing the trauma and accepting and making sense of the experience, of integrating it, was also another source of otherness. While for me it meant I got back to feeling more like myself, of rejoining some degree of normality, there is still an element of fundamental difference. For me the process helped me understand more about myself, including how my mind works (and how it does not) and how in the pursuit of self-defence, of self-protection, the mind can go to great lengths, including hiding away/shying away from feelings that seem too painful to bear. It was an experience that showed me that “reframing” is not some academic exercise – what we believe, how we see the world shapes how we feel and act in powerfully resonant ways. How we understand the world matters deeply; it shapes what we believe is possible, in ways that we do not always comprehend.  Thus, dealing with my PTSD changed me in ways as fundamental as the initial trauma did, in ways that are sometimes hard to explain to others who have not been through similar experiences. It also gave me a richer appreciation of how what we believe matters, and that sometimes confronting those beliefs can be one of the most challenging things to do. It forced me to face just how threatening change can be, with not feeling in control of my own life, even (or especially) when it is good change. In short, it was rich lesson in what it can like to be on the receiving end of change, something that any innovator should know and appreciate, in order to balance against the promise and merit of an idea.

Again, there is no guarantee. Trauma will not ensure a greater appreciation of, or affinity to, innovation. It will not inherently provide or foster empathy. But I do think that the experience of trauma as a form of otherness, can contribute to an innovation mindset. In some ways trauma provides a concentrated dose of experiencing a different life, of experiencing different thinking, of seeing the world differently, of even being someone different to who you were. More than the normal accumulation of life experiences and different contexts, trauma induces an otherness that changes and then, hopefully and in time, integrates with the best elements of your very self. For me, I think it has been my greatest lesson in different thinking and thinking differently, and the emotional intensity that can provoke or create. And it has definitely been a lesson in learning what has to be accepted and what can be fought; in learning about the potency of change and the strength that can be found within in the face of it.

Disability as a Source of Otherness

Disability, the loss or inability to do something assumed or expected as normal, can also be a powerful source of otherness. For me, my disability is, all things considered, rather minor, involving only some double vision and an associated inability to drive (bring on self-driving cars). Yet, it has provided a glimpse into another form of otherness. It has helped me understand how many things that can be taken for granted, and that are initially confronting, can also be reframed. Constraints that might initially seem limiting, do not have to be – it may just require looking at things in a different way. This is a lesson very pertinent to innovation.

In addition, disability, in whatever form, can give rise to different needs that are not met by the “norm”. This too can be very relevant to innovation, in understanding that innovation is often not driven by the mainstream – their needs are often already met (at least to some degree). Innovation usually comes from the edge, from those whose needs are not met, and who in time can help the mainstream see new ways of doing things, new opportunities, new possibilities, which in time can become the new norm.

Thus disability as a form of otherness can also help provide “training” and capabilities very relevant to the innovation process – seeing and experience the world different ways and thus seeing different needs and options, different insights about how and whether the current state of affairs is really working (and for whom).

Why Otherness Might be More Important Now than Ever

Why focus on otherness now?

I think it’s important because innovation is not a static process. In early days of modern humanity, tool making and agriculture were big innovations. Later writing and crafting were big innovations. Then factories and manufacturing. Then computers. Then smartphones. Then machine learning. (Then … ?)

That is not to say that innovation was ever easy – I expect idea generation in a time of fewer people, fewer resources, less sophisticated technology, and less knowledge was, if anything, probably harder than it is now. (On the other hand, idea implementation might well have been easier.)

But it is to suggest that as the rate of innovation increases, so do the skills, the resources, the networks. Big innovations now draw on a lot of previous work and effort. The process of innovation itself has to get more sophisticated as the “low hanging” innovations and technologies are “picked”.

So, as innovation moves from what has for many organisations been a relatively ad hoc practice to something that is more deliberate, consistent and sophisticated, I suggest otherness becomes more important. Where once organisations could take advantage of technical skills, even with some interdisciplinarity, as knowledge increases and as complexity multiplies, additional effort and resources will be required to come up with truly novel insights. Some of this – perhaps even much of it – will come from the increasing sophistication of innovation methods, systems and networks. But these will not be enough.

Drawing on my own personal experiences, and my professional background in innovation, I think that otherness may be so powerful for innovation because it is an unavoidable form of challenging the status quo. Whether the otherness is chosen, whether it is something one acquires involuntarily, or whether it has been  has had from birth, otherness forces a degree of confrontation with the current state. It provides an immersive and resonant form of learning that integrates at a deep level, and that informs the practice of innovation as a process of understanding different possibilities, of seeing how to apply ideas to different contexts in ways that have not been seen before. And I think it is this attribute that, for me, is absent in the conversations about diversity seen in many organisations.

Growing Opportunities for Otherness

I would not suggest by any measure that otherness should be seen as a scarce resource. There are many forms of otherness, some that are actively chosen, and some that may not be fundamental. Even something as simple as being vegetarian can be a form of otherness in a culture where meat-eating is the norm (I am routinely surprised at how the act of being vegetarian, even if not proselytised, can be taken by some as a provocation). Rather it is my point that I think otherness is a resource not currently cultivated or fostered as much as it might need to be in an environment of constant change with accelerating pressures for innovation.

I hypothesise that otherness does not have to be especially drastic to support the development of innovation mindsets and skills. All of us presumably have moments of otherness that we experience in our lives, moments of seeing the world differently to our peers or our families, of feeling like there’s something different about us. I do not think that otherness (for the purposes of this conversation) has to be exclusive, nor a matter of identifying degrees of otherness. It is more that I would like to suggest that we are entering a time when there is an opportunity for people to engage with their own otherness, and by understanding (or exploring) their own otherness, a chance to increase our connection with others. By understanding our own otherness, our own difference, and the value it can bring, the contributions it can make, perhaps we might be better placed to appreciate the otherness of others?

It is likely that the range of possible forms of otherness will only grow as technology provides new and greater, more diverse options and where a globalised world increasingly mixes beliefs and practices in new combinations. People will be presented with more opportunities to explore other aspects of themselves, in ways that may well differ to how their friends and family are.

So – what if we were encouraged to explore this otherness, to take advantage of it, to embrace it?

Being Able to Make the Most of Otherness

Of course, being in a position that allows you to take advantage of otherness can be a luxury. I have been fortunate in many ways in my own situation to have had support, compassion, forgiveness and care. Not everyone will be so lucky or feel equipped to “take advantage” of their otherness. Otherness can be draining. The knowledge of being different can, sometimes, be a continual depletion of scarce psychic reserves. We humans are social animals and difference/ otherness can sometimes feel like something to be managed, to be papered over or ignored, or something to be removed or to be assimilated. In addition, innovation is not an easy process, and can take considerable effort and persistence and “front”, attributes that can be scarce for those just trying to get along, let alone those feeling marginalised or disempowered by their otherness.

Despite this, I think there can also be a power to be gained from admitting otherness to ourselves, from accepting it and considering how it provides valuable experience and insight. And perhaps, if otherness begins to be seen as an advantage, as something that can help foster innovation, organisations will be better placed to support more people who feel different, to help them feel empowered by their otherness.

Organisations and Otherness

Yet even if I am on the right track, even if otherness is seen as a necessary and valuable attribute to inform innovation, there remains a question as to what organisations might do to engage with otherness.

As indicated, I am somewhat sceptical that the diversity policies of many organisations really help them engage with otherness, or that they help staff to make the most of their own otherness. Of course employing people from different backgrounds, and ensuring that they are not simply then made to act and behave in ways at odds with their backgrounds out of organisational convenience is a good thing. I think these are very necessary steps. But I do not think they go far enough. Too often I suspect that otherness is pushed to be assimilated, rather than appreciated and accepted as it is. This is natural – after all, organisations exist to replicate behaviours, to replicate and standardise processes and outcomes. Even while organisations themselves can sometimes be a breeding ground for the experience of otherness by some staff, that otherness is often seen as an unwanted by-product rather than a beneficial input.

Yet as innovation increases, and as automation replaces more and more tasks, the people remaining within organisations will presumably be increasingly less fungible, less able to simply be moved between different forms of busy work. Presumably, they will increasingly be asked to bring their whole selves to work, including their otherness.

I suggest that this will be a challenge to many existing management practices, and much of how we have traditionally understood organisations to work.

Otherness: from “Oh…” to “Ah!”?

In a predictable world, otherness is not generally an advantage. It carries the weight of not being the expected thing, and is a liability for organisations that value a coherent set of values, behaviours, traits and characteristics. Otherness can be emotionally draining for those carrying it, where being other can feel like a constant potential issue, one that has to be justified, defended or explained if it comes up. Otherness can also be taxing for those who are not other, as it can require more effort than normal interactions.

But in a world of continual change, of increasing sophistication of the practice of innovation, I suggest that otherness should actually be seen as an advantage. I believe that otherness can give a powerful experience of challenging the status quo at a deep personal level. I believe that it can help people see and understand the world differently, by giving them a lived reality of having experienced the world differently, by giving them the knowledge that the world works in different ways to conventional wisdom. I think that these aspects of otherness, which have often been seen as potential disadvantages can actually be valuable sources of competitive advantage. I suggest that just as these elements have often been valued in those industries based on variance and newness – such as art, fashion, fiction – they will increasingly be valued in other fields.

If this is so, I think this shift might pose a challenge to many organisations, even greater than the current issues of innovation processes and strategies, of new tools and new forms of collaboration.

Yet – I could be off-base. There are risks on drawing big lessons from personal experience, especially around something as personal and subjective as otherness. Therefore I’d welcome feedback about this personal and somewhat emergent thinking, including whether it accords with the experiences of others, or provides a useful perspective.

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