Innovation's Organizing Principles

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Why did I do this?

aboutphotoThe project represented by this web site is an attempt at integrating and applying the work of widely varied thinkers and doers. It's an attempt at leveraging that work toward new opportunity.

The project began with the accident of a discovery regarding what innovation means exactly -- I call the discovery a "trailhead" because the initial resource led me to discover so many other related resources.

That trail, initially a source of personal interest, became compelling to me as a potential source of value to others. Basically, knowledge dots connected to signal a possibility that I found important as a potential resource for many, many individual lives and for society overall. It might sound hubristic to imagine such effect, but I couldn't not try to convey a possibility that seemed (and seems) not only important, but there for the taking.

I could only develop the foundation of the possibility (the principles) in a limited way -- to the point of a prototype. Even that ended up taking much more time than I ever would have guessed, and the result may have many weaknesses. However, I hope it will be enough to signal a sense of possibility to those who have the knowledge, perspective, and more to take the prototype to a developed set of principles, so that others (myself included) can make productive use of that product.

Some of the detail about the trail follows, ending with next steps:

Unexpected Trailhead --
I read Thomas Stewart's Intellectual Capital in order to learn what "intellectual capital" meant exactly, and in doing so I encountered a trailhead of discovery about what "innovation" means.[1]

Stewart's treatment of "innovation" caught my initial attention for two significant reasons:

A big societal challenge --


A core personal "process" --

The second reason that Stewart's treatment of innovation caught my attention was that, to my surprise, I recognized integral aspects of the dynamics that Stewart was describing. My understanding had been tacit and partial, but it was connected to a longtime personal orientation and medium of expression -- a process of bringing out potential that was rooted in signals of opportunity.

Heading Down the Trail --
As Stewart's text about innovation caught my attention, I turned next to key references in his book in order to learn more (e.g., beginning with Drucker's 1985 Innovation and Entrepreneurship).[2.5]

Key Connections --
Whereas my argument about the feasibility of establishing "innovation's organizing principles" reflected connections within the dense trail of innovation resources, the associated hypothesis about the value of such principles reflected connections between that trail and complementary knowledge and ideas from fields such as education and psychology. For example:

i. Jerome Bruner -- "Structures of the Discipline" & "Paradigmatic Imagination"
Two distinct conceptualizations from Jerome Bruner, a research psychologist and learning theorist, stood out:

ii. Peter F. Drucker -- "Skilled Craft to Methodology" & "All but Existential"
Whereas aspects of Drucker's extensive work figured prominently within the themes about innovation's essential purpose and forces, the following two elements complemented the themes:

iii. Martin Seligman -- Framework about "Value"
After I had begun to draft the prototype principles, which featured "value" as innovation's change catalyst, I happened upon the videotaped TED talk of Martin Seligman, co-founder of the field of positive psychology. Within this talk about his research-based theory of "well-being," Seligman described a set of categories of experience, each valued "for its sake alone." Each is an object of "uncoerced choice," associated directly with personal well-being, or "flourishing":

Upon hearing Seligman's description and seeing his list of elements, I literally moved to the edge of my seat, as I thought "This is what I've seen serve as levers for win-win change, time and again." In particular, outsize leverage had resulted from offering others access to experiences of engagement and meaning. The framework, especially its notion of uncoerced choice, spoke to "why ideas work."

It was a short distance from this immediate response to consider that Seligman's theory and framework might shine light on innovation's fundamental currency of "value."

iv. John W. Gardner -- "It is not exhortation they need but instruction"
Finally, words from John W. Gardner (a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom) provided, in my mind, an umbrella for all of the above, including the backdrop of the 2007 panel discussion about this century's pressing need for innovation.

In a 1963 book about "the individual and the innovative society," Gardner wrote:

“(W)e must help the individual to (re-)establish a meaningful relationship with a larger context of purpose. … (O)ne of the reasons young people do not commit themselves to the larger social enterprise is that they are genuinely baffled as to the nature of that enterprise. … They do not see where they fit in. If they are to commit themselves to the best in their own society, it is not exhortation they need but instruction. … We must also help the individual to discover how such commitments may be made without surrendering individuality."[12]

"Instruction" about innovation's essential purpose, forces, and methods (and the extensive variation of its expression) struck me as custom made for this win-win societal task, especially if learning begins early and is designed to support students' hands-on exploration of innovation's multiple types of variation. Indeed, rather than surrendering individuality, well-being theory (and research findings about purpose) reinforces the idea that students would find forcefully positive value in experiences of progress in a genuinely meaningful sense of direction vis-a-vis their society, including its economy.

Innovation is of course not the only purposeful medium of expression; however, in the 21st century, its dynamics and overarching purpose are pertinent to perhaps the vast majority of workplace roles. Learning about it provides a broadly pertinent picture of what Gardner called "the larger social enterprise." Plus, the principles-based framework seems to represent a rare instrument for providing early, authentic, and varied experiences, which allow for feedback and discovery. Hands-on experiences can and should support student exploration of both innovation's ends and means.

A Potential (and Needed) Win for Society -- --
Overall, it's as if the panel I mentioned at the start of this page could have concluded that the only solution to "the coming global context of rapidly growing human population combined with limited natural resources (and "consumerism's" extensive and skewed use of the resources)" is:

To have enough individuals connecting to a personally compelling purpose, and within the connection developing personal strengths, knowledge, and methods/tools to address the purpose -- all with consciousness of the context and of the fit of innovation's essential purpose and forces.

That's what seems to represent the necessary roots to realizing the 21st century's need for innovation.

Indeed, one of the faculty members from the panel discussion (Andrew Hoffman) published a thought-provoking book in 2016 that I found in keeping with this premise: Finding Purpose, Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling.[13] Although tailored largely for an audience of business students, I found Hoffman's book responsive to Gardner's 1963 admonition above:

Hoffman paints a specific picture of the nature of the 21st century's larger social enterprise -- elaborating on the nature of the challenge of "creating a sustainable world" (including distinguishing between this outcome and "reducing unsustainability").[14]

Hoffman also echoes Gardner's belief in the need to "help the individual to establish a meaningful relationship with a larger context of purpose," as evidenced by the title of his 2016 book.

The combination of Gardner's admonition from over fifty years ago and Hoffman and others' modern treatment reinforces my sense of the importance of considering the hypothesis that establishing innovation's organizing principles, as the basis for broad access to learning about innovation's essential purpose and forces, not only is feasible but would be valuable.

In Sum --
Given these discoveries -- obviously compelling to me -- I couldn't not try to convey the opportunity that I perceived, one that seemed available for the taking.

Steve Jobs reportedly said: "If you're gonna make connections which are innovative, you have to not have the same bag of experience as everyone else does." I don't know yet if the connections at this site are innovative. That would be determined only upon the ultimate discovery of how learners respond to reasonably developed learning applications of a reasonably high-quality version of innovation's organizing principles. In one way or another, it will reflect too how the large and complicated operations of U.S. schooling might respond.

Next --
To find out, this site's Learning Leverage page includes a set of sample "how it could become" hypotheses, at the end, where the most fundamental "how" is having high-quality organizing principles. That's where you might come in:

Overall, I envision principles as a public good. To the extent that this site is worthwhile, it too is a type of public good.

Thank you for visiting the site and considering its ideas.


Karen Gates
Ann Arbor, Michigan


[1] Thomas A. Stewart, Intellectual Capital (Currency Doubleday: New York, 1997)

[2] University of Michigan Erb Institute video archives, “Is Consumerism Sustainable?”, 2007

[2.5] See the site's Bibliography for resources that I kept track of.

[3] Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education, (Harvard University Press, 1960), p 7

[4] Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, ((Harvard University Press, 1986), p 13

[5] Peter F. Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society, (Harper Press, 1993), p 46

[6] Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management, 1987, “The Knowledge Creating Company.”

[7] Peter F. Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, (HarperBusiness, 1985)

[7.5] Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don't Students Like School?, (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2009), p 68

[8] Ted Talk:

See also: Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish, A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, (Free Press, Simon & Schuster: New York, 2011)

[9] John W. Gardner,Self-renewal; the individual and the innovative society (Harper & Rowe, New York, 1963)

[10] Robert E. Quinn, Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Accomplish Extraordinary Results, (Jossey Bass: San Francisco, 2000)

[11] Reinforcing 21st century voices include:

[12] Gardner, 1963, p 12

[13] Andrew J. Hoffman, Finding Purpose, Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling, (Greenleaf Publishing Ltd: U.K, 2016)

[14] Hoffman, 2016, p 55