Innovation: Force Fields for Change

This article relates selected multidirectional patterns of change—“force fields”—in the business environment to innovation strategy within the context of Zen philosophical principles. Three force fields are selected for brief evaluation: 1) domestic vs. global markets, 2) economic growth vs. environmental quality, and 3) entrepreneurs vs. customer base. Given the omnipresence of force fields in the 21st century, businesses should maintain flexible structures for innovating both incrementally and radically. They also need to engage in collaboration at all institutional levels. Collaboration can facilitate the Zen objective of integrating conflicting ideas, a key feature of innovation over the long run.

Concepts: Force fields and zen

The concept of “force fields for change” in innovation can be derived from the Asian philosophy of Zen Buddhism (See “The Intensity Factor in Innovation: Principles from Zen Philosophy”). Change in the world of 21st-century business does not come in tidy, unitary packages. It is interdependent and systemic, with trends in one direction often generating multiple “side effect” changes in the opposite direction. Greater market opportunities in one place may entail higher costs someplace else (or elsewhere in the production and supply chain).

Embrace the two opposing forces and strive for a superior synthesis of both.

Given two opposing forces, pressures or trends, Zen does not advocate recognizing only one or the other, or deciding on a company strategy to accommodate one to the exclusion of the other. One should instead be flexible and holistic. Embrace the two opposing forces and strive for a superior synthesis of both. One should remain “choice-less” for as long as feasible. Don’t slip into “groupthink” or get bogged down in one-sided PowerPoint presentations, which can foreclose the innovation process too soon. This is not an argument simply for delay, but to be intensively aware of and anticipate all innovation options within a rapidly changing business environment. The Zen ecological awareness principle encourages innovators to think intuitively and be sensitive to unexpected (and serendipitous) connections between opposing ideas that may actually have something in common at a deep, elemental level.

Three force fields for business: Globalization, the environment, consumers

We can identify at least the following three force fields for change that may be significant for innovation. Other force fields can certainly be specified, but these three at least illustrate the multidirectional patterns of change in the modern business environment that innovators face:

  1. Rapid globalization—spread of capitalist economies—on an international scale, especially in the East. This means that businesses have to take into account a much greater range of interdependent issues (and corresponding rapid changes) relating to domestic vs. external markets, suppliers and technology.
  2. Rising environmental and related health costs of GDP growth. It is clear now that economic growth across both developed and developing countries entails expanding costs in terms of air, water and ground pollution. Global warming due to excessive greenhouse gas emissions is the biggest environmental cost of GDP growth.
  3. Greater diversification and collaboration in the sources of business innovation. New ideas are now more likely to come from entrepreneurs, researchers, designers and technology specialists within company teams, labs, regional communities or hubs, and global/virtual networks, rather than from entrepreneurs working solo. And customers are making their product preferences more forcefully known through access to internet social media.

These three force fields and their associated tensions can be summarized as operating along the following three dimensions, respectively: 1) domestic vs. global markets, 2) economic growth vs. environmental quality, and 3) entrepreneurs vs. customer base.

Social observers in almost every period of modern history claim that their own era is one of rapid and significant change. To fall into the same “trap”, there are many reasons why the dawn of the 21st century may be the most rapidly evolving period of all.

First, there is the economy. The phenomenon of globalization has distributed the costs and benefits of economic growth across the world in an unprecedented pattern. The West, the U. S. in particular, no longer dominates the international economy like it did for decades after World War II. Economic primacy is now in the process of shifting to the East—China, India and other Asian “tigers” with high GDP growth rates. Brazil and other Latin American economies are also part of the new globalized growth era.

Technological innovation is no longer just a foundation for economic growth but will increasingly have to be diverted into ameliorating the environmental, including health costs of growth.

Second, the physical and biological environment—now in the “Anthropocene” era—is changing faster than previously thought. Recent studies have pushed upward the estimated rate of global warming, including sea level rise, due to excessive emissions of carbon dioxide. Ice sheets in western Antarctica have tripled their rate of melting over the past decade; the same ice degradation is also occurring in eastern Antarctica (Geophysical Research Letters, October 2014; Nature Geoscience, March 2015). This problem often goes hand-in-hand with rapid GDP growth and globalization, as demonstrated by high levels of smog in Beijing and other Chinese cities. Technological innovation is no longer just a foundation for economic growth but will increasingly have to be diverted into ameliorating the environmental, including health costs of growth.

Third, there are now, internationally, a lot more business entrepreneurs in the wake of the Great Recession and financial crisis that began in 2007-2008. Entrepreneurs and corporate leaders of the past often tried to “divine” or decide for themselves what their customers wanted or needed. However, customers nowadays have more resources—especially blogs, chatrooms and other social media—for making their preferences known. Companies now feel more pressure to diversify and customize product designs to meet user needs within different market localities and income strata. Although not widely successful so far, some businesses go further and practice open innovation/crowdsourcing—actively soliciting new product concepts and designs from outside the company.

As an example of the new wave in customer relations, the late IT entrepreneur Steve Jobs used to insist that Apple iPhone users did not want or need a large cellphone screen. (It could be difficult for customers to manipulate or wrap their hands around the phone.) Smartphone users, however, have consistently pushed for larger and larger screen sizes in recent years. Samsung has come out with larger phones. Finally, Apple yielded and released a large-screen phone, the iPhone 6P (6 Plus), in September of 2014; it has been selling very well lately.

Impacts on innovation

What implications do these changes carry for the nature of innovation? Students of innovation argue whether companies should focus more on incremental or radical/disruptive changes to their goods and services. Should a business primarily pursue safe, marginal innovations to existing product lines, with the intent of capturing a slightly greater market share from competitors? Or, should a company devote more resources chiefly to investing in the creation and development of entirely new types of products—to meet new perceived customer needs? The latter innovation strategy is more risky from an economic standpoint, at least in the short run, but carries a potentially greater return on investment (ROI) in the long run.

A key implication of the multiple force fields concept is that businesses should focus on both incremental and radical innovation. They need a flexible structure that can go back and forth between these two levels. Companies should encourage a continuous culture of innovation that is adaptable and opportunistic.

Intensive collaboration over time, especially the integration of opposing ideas, can be interpreted as a Zen approach.

Another implication of force fields is the need for collaboration within and between all institutional levels—customers, businesses, universities, governments and entire societies/nations. There is a Zen principle that “failure creates opportunity” (derived from the Tao Te Ching). If an individual is failing at an innovation project, then collaboration should expand his or her opportunities for success. Intensive collaboration over time, especially the integration of opposing ideas, can be interpreted as a Zen approach. Individual employees often develop a vested interest in their own ideas, which may be based too much on past experience. Zen “clearing of the mind” meditation can help with that. Collaboration can generate a broader knowledge base and wider range of new and possibly conflicting ideas—thus leading to a more creative synthesis. (An example of conflicting ideas would be designing software for a smartphone that performs more complex functions while also reducing the number of user screen clicks.)

The ever-changing constellation of international markets—both customers and suppliers—produced by globalization means that businesses must frequently fine-tune their product lines and make incremental innovations in response to competitive pressures and opportunities from all directions. For example, a new market for a company’s product may suddenly emerge among low-to-middle income consumers in a developing country overseas. However, the company may have to partially modify the product’s design (e.g., reduce the number of functions) and production process in order to lower its price to a competitive level. This type of locally/functionally tailored, cost-sensitive innovation in developing economies, such as India and China, is often called “jugaad.” has published several articles on jugaad innovation over the past few years; see, for instance, Mitali Sharma, February 27, 2012, “Jugaad: Lessons in Frugal Innovation.”

Regarding the second force field above, the increasing rate of environmental change suggests that incremental innovation is sometimes not enough. China has recently been working on innovations in alternative energy sources, including photovoltaic panels and wind-driven turbines. India has been developing new methods for making cement that conserve water.

A key constraint or intervening variable for a given manufacturing technology is how much energy it uses per unit of output. For example, a manufacturing company might decide to switch its energy source from fossil fuels to low-carbon, eco-friendly alternatives. But without a corresponding change in energy usage per output, such a switch may result in a costly and impractically large acreage of solar panels or windmills. What is probably required is a radical innovation in technology that reduces the amount of energy consumed in the manufacturing process itself. Even with that change, there may be more “ripples” in the environmental force field. A new technology may create new pollution threats (e.g., new waste products or chemical residues). These may require further innovation efforts and re-engineering, perhaps even geoengineering.

In the case of the third force field described above—innovation within the open context of business entrepreneurs vs. customer base—one can identify common, underlying approaches that connect these two “rival” sources of new ideas. An example would be collaboration, a frequent topic, by the way, in recent Innovation Management articles. Entrepreneurs are more likely to collaborate these days with researchers, engineers and designers in a company, regional/virtual development network or other type of innovation hub. A collaboration/co-creation conduit can be added to online forums where customers can communicate new preferences and design ideas to company researchers. Some customers may also collaborate among themselves in coming up with new product designs, thus extending the innovation hub concept. At a later stage of the innovation process, customer collaboration can help in the testing, evaluation and marketing of the final product. (Such collaboration can be aided by cloud-based IT tools. It may also benefit from cash incentives to participating customers.)

From global competition to collaboration to outright talent integration—this is the direction advocated by a holistic Zen business philosophy…

The core collaboration concept can also be applied to the globalization and environmental change force fields (numbers (1) and (2) above). Globalization is not just about capitalist competition between countries. Companies investing or expanding their operations overseas may find it profitable to collaborate with foreign engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs while developing new or modified products for those markets. And beyond that, given flexible visa laws, companies could hire more technologically skilled and risk-savvy immigrants for their own domestic innovation teams. (The United States, for example, is doing this. See Charles Kenny, The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West, 2013.) From global competition to collaboration to outright talent integration—this is the direction advocated by a holistic Zen business philosophy that embraces opposition.

Compensating for environmental damage requires collaboration across countries to be successful in the long term. Control of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions certainly needs to be an international effort, as exemplified by the U.S.-China agreement of November 2014 (and U.N.-sponsored negotiations planned for Paris at the end of 2015).

Conclusion: Collaboration at all levels, ideas from all directions

Finally, it is important to stress that there are other force fields or multidirectional patterns of change in the business environment that impact innovation. An example is the rise of “smart machines,” a key engine of globalization. (The Instagram app is a recent simple instance of this trend.) These are transforming business services, manufacturing processes and how companies sell to consumers. As with other force fields, however, there are adverse side effects, especially unemployment and wage stagnation. It is a challenge to find innovative ways to employ technologically displaced workers. Again, this will involve collaboration, but at a societal level—between businesses, governments and educational institutions (e.g., subsidized partnerships for testing, retraining and relocation).

The 21st-century business experiences competition and force fields of change from all directions. The Zen perspective in innovation stays fully focused, intensive and collaborative. It draws upon talent, opportunity and ideas from all directions.

By Gary W. Davis

About the Author

Gary Davis is an economist working in Washington, D. C. He has published articles on Eastern philosophy for business innovation in several management journals, including Innovation Management. In 2009-2010, he published an article, “Contexts for Innovation,” in magazines in both the U. S. and Malaysia. The article recommends a synthesis of Eastern and Western strategies for business teams. He has studied innovation processes in connection with a position as research team leader. Gary Davis has presented economics papers at seminars and national conferences (e.g., of the Southern Economics Association and Society of Government Economists). He also gave a presentation on innovation to a U. S. Federal government seminar. He holds Master’s degrees in Economics and Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Administration from George Mason University, Virginia.