In praise of mesovation

All too often, simplifications just lead us astray. Is taking radical as the opposite of incremental or in small steps one such contrived simplification – and one that risks misleading us? This weeks´ column is written by Bengt-Arne Vedin, PhD and Professor emeritus in innovation management..

Creativity researcher David Henry Feldman urges us to remember what he refers to as Middle C, in allusion to the musical note of the same name. In other words, we tend to talk about Great Creativity, big ideas and radical breakthroughs, or (if we refer to them at all) we talk about the opposite – small creative incremental jumps – as more of an aside. This despite the fact that, when taken together, many small leaps can make a real difference.

The point of a Middle C is to remind us that we are dealing with a continuum – a continuous, ongoing scale – where what is radical to a greater or lesser degree is in the eye of the beholder, determined by the observer’s outlook or vantage point. If a researcher or practitioner focuses on either of the end-points of the scale, there is the risk of being led astray. In reality, how often does an idea actually reach the absolute extreme – high or low?

In reality, how often does an idea actually reach the absolute extreme – high or low?

To refer to innovation instead – radical as opposed to incremental – is, of course, no different at all if we stick to creativity applied to technology or business in a broad sense. Quite reasonably, business idea or innovation competitions encourage what seems like big leaps, while work relating to improvements and sometimes suggestions for improvements – kaizen – is the preserve of smaller-scale efforts in terms of radicality: middle i innovation.

After all, no-one is on the look-out for small advances, no-one competes to achieve modest innovation, and no-one receives recognition for a level of inventiveness that, despite not being low, is still only moderate: mesovation (micro, macro, meso). Do we not, then, run the risk that the best becomes the enemy of the good? Why not also reward mid-level creativity?

The same goes for those of us who are creativity and innovation researchers. By the very nature of things, it is the radical, attention-grabbing breakthroughs that end up in the spotlight. But what do we thus miss out? What do we lose in terms of a more general understanding that could be applicable at both high and low levels, both at the highly innovative and incremental ends?

It is the radical, attention-grabbing breakthroughs that end up in the spotlight

Should this not be an appropriate aspiration for us Swedes, who have our own word for that which is just right – lagom – a word lacking a satisfactory translation into many other languages? Of course, it is hardly appropriate to call for an ombudsman to champion all that is lagom, but wherever an adequate solution is lacking, a niche arises for unique competitiveness. Within the market for goods and services, Middle C and mesovation could be a factor for gaining a competitive edge, while not something that creates its own specific industry.

When it comes to research and education, however, the situation is quite different. If a field has not been studied, there are plenty of opportunities for making discoveries that bring their own reward – cited articles, titles, positions, and grants that belong to the realm of scientific endeavor.

For once, let us celebrate moderation – that which is appropriate!

The idea behind this line of reasoning came from studying two books by Umberto Eco: On Beauty and On Ugliness. However, there are no works about the middle ground – all that which is indifferent, lukewarm, moderately interesting, or even uninteresting, tiring. But note that Middle C and the mid-level of innovation – mesovation – need not be uninteresting or indifferent – they simply belong somewhere closer to the middle ground when viewed on a continuous scale. Instead of lukewarm or indifferent, try if not lagom then appropriate.  For once, let us celebrate moderation – that which is appropriate!

About Bengt-Arne Vedin

Bengt-Arne VedinBengt-Arne Vedin, PhD, is Professor emeritus in innovation management, now affiliated with the Department of Industrial economics and management at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. After practicing innovation and entrepreneurship, resulting in a handful patents, he has been into innovation studies since the mid-1970′ with professorships at the Royal Institute of Technology and Mälardalen University, also serving as a guest professor at Kasetsart University in Thailand and Universitat de Girona in Spain.

Bengt-Arne has consulted for large and small firms as well as organizations such as the US National Academy of Engineering and the OECD, and has served on some fifteen corporate boards of directors. His research is geared at innovation, IT, and futurology in various combinations, most recently at design-inspired innovation. He is now working on his book no 71 on that theme.