Innovation starts with concepts

Organisations often struggle to change. One fundamental hindrance are tacit mental concepts, the foundation for both daily decision-making and the long-term strategy formulation of organisations. Once mental concepts have become taken for granted, they are held implicitly and can be barriers to novel thinking around a common aim.

In 1819, Arthur Schopenhauer stated in the first sentence of “The World as Will and Representation”: “The world is my Vorstellung. This is the truth which holds true for every living and cognizing being, although only the human being can bring it forth to reflected, abstract consciousness. And when he genuinely does that, then the philosophical mind has formed. Then he gets aware that he does not know sun and no earth, but only an eye, which sees a sun, a hand, which feels the earth, that the world surrounding him is there only as a Vorstellung, only in relation to something else, the Vorstellende, which is himself. Schopenhauer’s Vostellung – “something to be put in front of somebody” – stands for an object of perception, an image, notion, or conception.

One of the most basic problems of modern management is that the mechanical way of thinking is so ingrained in our everyday conception of organisations that it is often difficult to organise in any other way.
– Gareth Morgan

A conception, a “pre-understanding” of a subject preceding every new understanding, is a basic ingredient of 18th century hermeneutics with Schleiermacher and Hegel. In a contemporary context, Michael McCaskey calls them “mental maps” and Robert Kegan “big assumptions”.  They are described as maps, shapes or pictures created by the human brain to make sense of the world. Others call these concepts folk models, frames, myths, or parables. Fauconnier describes a model of “mental space”, containing a representation of the entities and relations of a particular scenario as perceived, imagined, or remembered. Kempton asserts that people, much like scientists theorizing, construct mental models that make sense of most of what they see.  In the schema for decision-making elaborated by Marshall ( Identification – elaboration – planning – execution), the stage of elaboration involves the creation of a mental model about the current problem situation, calling on already existing knowledge.

Concepts determine how an organisation and its environment are seen. When plotting a course of action, managers implicitly rely on them. These concepts are the foundation for both daily decision-making and long-term planning. Once concepts have become taken for granted, they are held implicitly.

Leonard and Straus found that thinking style preferences are becoming “hard-wired” into brains and reinforced over years of practices and self-selection. When, in the course of an organisational change, the new outlook does not conform with held assumptions, these concepts can be the reason why people are reluctant to change. Dumas confirms that “tacit mental models can cause insights into new markets to be lost or outmoded organisational practices to be preserved.” Peter Senge mentions mental models as sources of deeply ingrained assumptions. Gardner describes that barriers to the stimulation of novel thinking around a common aim are often based on conceptual framing.

Concepts are at the heart of everyday behaviour and management strategy. The change of concepts lies at the heart of innovation and organisational change. Finding the right conceptual image can contribute to a crucial organisational ability for innovation – the ability to reconfigure itself in relation to its environment.

When we at MGD Mario Gagliardi Design help companies to innovate, we start with the elicitation of (often implicit) concepts. Once engrained images and beliefs are uncovered (“unfrozen”), they can be represented and modified via various channels. We then use creative methods on different sensory channels to collaboratively explore new concepts to drive organizational change. We see collaborations as a “performance of understanding”: In collaborations people are playing out puzzles of experience and individual contributions, composing something that makes sense. The final step to enable change and to establish the new concept is communication with images and narratives. Stories are chains of concepts where metaphors, stories and myths help to make sense of experiences, tasks and goals.