The whole idea is this: if you really want to be innovative, you have to experiment. If you know the outcome of what you’re going to do, it’s not an experiment. It’s more like a demonstration.

Amazon’s vice president for global innovation policy and communications, Paul Misener

Introducing this kind of approach to innovation into most organisations takes a fair bit of courage, a shift in mindset about causality and the exercise of a range of somewhat different skills and capabilities.

One change in mindset might be to view any plan or prediction you make as an “ante-narrative”. A story about how you believe the future will play out that is also a “bet” (as in “upping the ante”) on what will happen. The originator of this idea, David Boje, locates ante-narrative in this way:

  • Narrative – backward-looking, after-the-fact and finalised.
  • Living story – in-the-moment, emergent and unfinalised.
  • Ante-narrative – forward-looking, before-the-fact and both predictive and emergent.

Thinking in this way potentially allows several things to happen.

  • It allows the “plan” to remain an imaginative story about how you think the future will be, rather than a precise prediction that needs to be realised.
  • It combines a plan for the future with emotion and a more metaphoric form of description.
  • It draws more attention to the assumptions that are being made – particularly if you ask the question, “What are we relying on in placing this bet?”
  • It helps you work out which bits of the story are more or less certain and therefore direct your attention to those aspects that are essentially experiements.
  • It reminds you that there are other stories that could be told.
  • It makes the decision-making process for the various aspects of the chosen story more transparent, and therefore more open to being changed.

Changing your thinking about the future and how you act to change it is challenging, given the continuing emphasis in our current managerial thinking on the visionary and heroic leader (or perhaps leadership team).

Perhaps making that this change could, itself, be conducted as a series of safe-to-fail experiments.

  • What is something relatively small you need to do that is sufficiently complex to be impossible to predict?
  • How might you experiment with doing this in a less planned and more “experimental” way?
  • What forward-looking story could you tell about it that would also be a “bet” on what is likely to happen?
  • What is the next opportunity you have to try this out?

For the background (academic) on the idea of ante-narrative see here .

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