Innovation and Aristotle's Ethics

Could Aristotle’s framework for ethics offer us insights for how to catalyze innovation?

Two concepts from the ancient Greek philosopher seem immediately relevant:

  • the idea of practical action as a means for cultivating character, and
  • the notion of achieving excellence through balance.

1. Aristotle held that we cultivate character through practical action.

Aristotle’s notion of practical wisdom synchs beautifully with my heartfelt commitment to “changing culture by doing”.

Nilofer Merchant told an exemplary story, in reply to a question I asked in the MIXHangout on 23 January hosted by Fast Company co-founder Polly LaBarre (co-author with Bill Taylor of Mavericks at Work, one of my all-time favorite business books.)

My question (scrub to 19:00 here): When people within an organisation are jaundiced (often understandably so), where or how do you start the shift to creating a more connected, collaborative, trust-worthy organisation?

Merchant’s reply (I paraphrase): Choose the hardest question that all the embedded methods have failed to address. People will give anything a go. And when they find a new method works, that’s when it goes viral.

LaBarre’s distillation: “You get that muscle memory of having had a success.”

Yes, yes, yes, say Aristotle and I.

Along with Gregg Fraley and Indy Neogy, I talk about “Thinking with your Hands” and muscle memory plays a role in our advocating using 3-dimensional objects in problem- and question-framing work. Thinking with your hands celebrates the kinesthetic intelligence Howard Gardner of Harvard recognized in his groundbreaking work expanding psychology’s narrower view of intelligence as purely mathematical, analytical and verbal.

But this isn’t a merely theoretical position (any more than my recent forays into Aristotle are “merely philosophical”…or pedagogical).

The point of processing cultural trends with as many modalities of human intelligence as possible is to do the boldest, most imaginative, thinking possible. In successful innovation, the person doing the doing is committing their fully embodied intelligence – to asking the best questions and generating the most novel, elegant, effective responses.

Design thinking (in its many formulations) speaks to embodied intelligence. To my mind, this explains its force and appeal.

2. Aristotle saw each virtue as balanced either side by excess or deficiency.

How many of us have seen initiatives cave in or get cancelled because their champions failed to strike a balance between novelty and (let’s call it, as a short hand) relevance?

Here are a few of examples of balance gone awry

  • Branding: Remember when PwC’s consulting division was rebranded by Wolff Ohlins as Monday? Announced on 10 June 2002 by the PwC CEO with the declaration that Monday was “a real word, concise, recognisable, global and the right fit for a company that works hard to deliver results,” by 31 July 2002 Monday was killed off. (The BBC published Monday’s “death notice” the day after the division was acquired by IBM Global Services.) Here is a case of purported simplicity tipping into stupidity.
  • Product: Crystal Pepsi (1992 -1993) and Tab Clear from Coca Cola launched in mid-December 1992. A desirable attribute in face and hand soap bars (transparency) would not migrate to carbonated soft drinks. Doug Ivester was president of Coca-Cola’s North American soft drink business at the time told the NY Times when Clear Tab launched: “Clear Coke is an oxymoron.” Consumers agreed. And more. Aristotle was clear, even if the rival soda makers were not: that more a virtue is not necessarily better.
  • Strategy: Pest control firm Rentokil’s acquisition of courier service CityLink. Bought in 1993 and rebranded in 2006 (with e-commerce era well and truly underway), CityLink revenues flatlined 2007-2011, during a period of e-commerce growth. No surprise was sold to a private equity group in April 2013 for just £1 (that’s about a buck-fifty US, less than the price of a newspaper). Yes both business lines dispatch vans and trucks to terrestrial addresses, but there the synergy ends.

In each case (and countless others), a notion fails when it doesn’t achieve a dynamic balance or practical relevance with real-world customers and stakeholders.

Balance between excess and deficiency isn’t about dilution – it’s about excellence.

If you’re interested in reading Aristotle, start with the 2012 translation of Nichomachean Ethics by Barrett & Collins. The language is fresh, and the translators’ essay is meaty.

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Kate Hammer is a joint founder of KILN, working with large-scale companies in the USA and Australia to transform their internal innovation processes. Kate works as a business storyteller. In 2012, she created StoryFORMs to help others articulate their commercial & organisational stories. Kate offers workshops & 1:1 coaching.

Kate Hammer




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