Innovation--The Missing Dimension.

Author:Castellacci, Fulvio
Position:Book review
 
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Innovation-The Missing Dimension, by Richard K. Lester and Michael J. Piore. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press. 2004. Cloth, ISBN 0674015819, $24.95. 223 pages.

This is an interesting and stimulating book. It argues that innovation studies have so far neglected an important dimension of the innovative process, which the authors call the interpretive dimension. This refers to managers' capability of bringing together people of different backgrounds (e.g., engineers, product designers, advanced users), engage them in constructive discussions about new products, manage the confusion and ambiguity that may inevitably arise in the interactions between heterogenous agents, interpret such ambiguity, and eventually point to new technological trajectories that the innovative process should lead to. These interpretive capabilities have been neglected by the literature on innovation management, which has so far mostly focused on the analytical dimension of the innovative process.

The analytical dimension is of course important; it refers to the rational problem-solving skills that the actors engaged in innovative activities must necessarily be endowed with. In a complex, rapidly changing, and fundamentally uncertain business environment, however, analytical problem-solving skills must necessarily be complemented by a diverse set of broader nonanalytical capabilities. In fact, radical uncertainty makes it frequently hard even to identify the objective of problem-solving activities. The identification of objectives, the definition of problems, and the opening up of new technological trajectories can only be achieved by the managers' use of their interpretive skills.

Richard Lester and Michael Piore develop this interesting argument by describing the results of three case studies on innovation and product design in rather different industries, namely cellular telephones, blue jeans, and medical devices. What these different cases have in common is that in all of them new product development has required a high degree of integration, obtained through conversations among people with different backgrounds. This type of interaction among heterogenous agents frequently generates ambiguity, which is the crucial resource out of which innovation is created. These conversations must therefore be fostered, and the resulting ambiguity must be managed, interpreted, and oriented toward new, promising directions. This is precisely what creative managers...

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