What are the “practices” of innovation?

Previously we’ve written about how we define the “stuff” that might be considered innovations within the Hive – ideas, technologies, program models, and design principles are all the “things” or “nouns” that are the results of other activities. But what about the activities that bring these innovations about? These are what I refer to as  innovation practices. These practices operate on the level of verbs – they’re not things, but rather actions, activities, and processes. They make up the evolution or life-cycle of innovations, from brainstorming and iteration to implementation and scaling. Innovation practices are often so invisible and taken for granted that we thought it might be useful to name and offer some definitions here on the blog. Part of the idea in doing so is to let people in on the process we’re going through to theorize innovation in the Hive, but another goal is to give language to Hive members so that they might better recognize and call out things they do every day, activities that are central to how Hive works together as a network.

Sprout bulb in interative cycle

To offer a framework, we’ll draw on the work of James March, a scholar of organizational learning who famously offered [pdf] that the process of innovation can be broken up into two primary sets of activities – the work of exploration, and the work of exploitation. According to March, exploration “… includes things captured by terms such as search, variation, risk taking, experimentation, play, flexibility, discovery, innovation”, while exploitation “… includes such things as refinement, choice, production, efficiency, selection, implementation, execution.”

Put another way by the scholar Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, exploration encompasses a set of innovation practices that aim to develop new knowledge (broadly defined – ideas, technologies, program models, design principles, etc.) within a given context, and supports greater departures from current knowledge that exists in that context. And exploitation encompasses a set of innovation practices that aim to hone and extend current knowledge. Exploitation, rather than departing greatly from existing knowledge, hews closely to it in order to further and deepen it. It “exploits”, or makes the most of on an area that’s already familiar.

So what, more precisely, are the actual activities that make up these two areas of innovation? Based on what I’ve seen in Hive, on my own work experience, and on what the literature discusses, I’ve broken down a set of innovation practices I see as belonging in each of these buckets.

Exploration might include the following:

  • Exposure – the act of encountering an innovation or information about an innovation without specifically seeking it out.
  • Search – the act of actively seeking out an innovation or information about an innovation in a directed and intentional manner.
  • Sense-making – the process of coming to understand the nature of an innovation and/or the innovation’s potential relationship to a given actor’s goal(s). Sense-making can be intentionally undertaken as a practice, or more organically occur without specific direction on the part of an actor.
  • Ideation – the practice of intentionally generating ideas for potential innovations that might be further developed by a given actor.
  • Prototyping – the practice of creating early-stage pilots or models of a given innovation for the purposes of gaining information that would further the design.
  • Experimentation – the practice of engaging in early-stage implementation of a prototype within a variety of contexts with the intention of gaining information that would further the design.
  • Refinement – the practice of using information gained through prototyping and experimentation processes in order to change central aspects of an innovation’s design.
  • Iteration – the practice of repetitively engaging in cycles of prototyping, experimentation and refinement for the purposes of systematically improving an innovation. 
  • Recontextualization – the practice of adapting a given innovation to a particular context to better meet the needs and priorities of said context.
  • Reinvention – the practice of re-conceptualizing a given innovation such that it takes on a substantively distinct new form.

Obviously, many of these practices are overlapping or encompass one another. For instance, “iteration” is a sort of meta-practice that subsumes prototyping, experimentation and refinement. The processes of “recontextualization” and “reinvention” imply that exposure or search must have occured, as well as some sort of sense-making. Each of these practices though offers a distinct lens into the larger process of exploration.

Exploitation, on the hand, includes a very different set of practices such as:

  • Production – the creation, manufacturing or design of a given innovation at a degree of refinement and scale such that it is ready to be implemented in its intended context of use.
  • Implementation – the execution and/or release of a given innovation within its context of intended use.
  • Establishing Efficiencies – refinement to non-core aspects of an innovation or the processes surrounding the production or implementation of an innovation for the purposes of making its continued production or implementation less resource intensive.
  • Institutionalization – the development of increased capacity, knowledge and expertise vis-a-vis a given innovation within an organization or system.

We could possibly leave the story of innovation practices at those two buckets of exploration and exploitation, but as I looked at the Hive and considered the networked nature of innovation that occurs here, two other linked practices seemed to be important: documentation and circulation, defined below:

  • Circulation – formal or informal sharing of an innovation and/or information relating to an innovation across multiple actors (individuals, organizations, systems). Actors engaged in circulation may or may not be associated with development of the innovation.
  • Documentation – the practice of creating artifacts and reference materials relating to a given innovation to help achieve a variety of functions across the spectrum of innovation practices.

In terms of “networked innovation”, these practices are central to the ways that innovation is captured, spread, and accumulated throughout the network, operating as a sort of connective tissue in terms of innovation. They speak to the process of “diffusion of innovations“, made famous by innovation scholar Everett Rogers.

So what do we make of all this when we think about studying innovation in Hive NYC? In general, part of why we go through the process of developing such layers of theory is so we can get a better sense of what activity is actually going on, and where to focus our energies and attention as researchers. In the context of the Hive, the practices of exploration and circulation seem to be the most relevant. In terms of exploration, the discourse of the network is generally oriented towards experimentation with new ideas, technologies and programs, something encompassed by exploration practices. And in terms of circulation, many Hive-supported activities, including partnerships, meet-ups, learning lab and community calls are heavily oriented towards sharing what people are working on and spreading knowledge across the community. These circulation practices in the network also feed back into such central exploration processes as search, exposure, sensemaking, recontextualization and reinvention. Exploration and circulation practices both inextricably tied to one another in a networked context, and as such are central as we study what Hive is up to.

Where do we go from here then? Two things have emerged for us as critical as we’ve started to conceptualize innovation practices, both of which have emerged from our fieldwork.

The first is that it’s become increasingly clear that the real value here is in understanding the particular ways that organizations string all of these different practices together. If these individual practices are the innovation equivalent of walking, we want to understand and be able to talk about how Hive organizations dance, whether it be on their own, in pairs, or in epic choreographed ensembles (if that makes sense!). This means being able to speak to how the different innovation practices I’ve talked about here are coordinated into larger patterns of organizational behavior and strategy, and how being part of a network intersects with that.

The second thread we want to pull here is about language. A lot of the literature on innovation isn’t really native to the educational world, and some terms (like exploitation, for instance) don’t really resonate with the culture and ethos of the Hive. While such terms might be useful analytically, we’re curious to learn more about how Hive organizations talk about the ways they engage in the activities we described here. Some things we know have become common parlance – prototyping, iteration, playtesting – but we’re sure that there’s a lot of other ways that Hivers talk about how they engage in innovation, and we’re curious to hear from people on this front.

Prototyping a Network-level Design Research Process


One of the guiding principles of the Hive Research Lab model is a tight coupling between practice and research. Practical needs and concerns informed the development of our core research questions, and ideas from the academic literature base and the basic research we’re conducting are meant to inform practice on the ground. And the idea of engaging in co-design experiments with Hive NYC network members emerged from this same spirit of being an applied laboratory at the intersection of theory and practice. All of this sounds well and good on paper (and in theory!), but the actual nuts and bolts of collaboratively developing new things within the network and then researching them is quite complicated and has potentially infinite permutations on the ground. So in developing what this design process would look like in practice, we went back to our first principle – tight coupling between researchers and practitioners. We knew we had to talk to and work with Hivers even as we were planning and developing the practical aspects of the co-design research work to make sure that we get it right when we do our full fledge launch of that work (we always joke about how meta we are in the lab…).

So in late October, we held a prototyping and focus group session with a group of Hive NYC members about our co-design research process. In doing so, there was a lot that we wanted to get feedback on. What sort of value did they think Hive members might get from participating? What did they see as likely challenges? Had they engaged in cross-organizational co-design processes before? If so, what worked or didn’t work in the past? Prior to our session we brainstormed probably a dozen and a half questions that we’d been chewing on and that we thought this group might help us to answer. We knew full well that we wouldn’t be able to get answers to everything, but also knew that having a good sense of our “known unknowns” would allow us to make the most use of the collective intelligence of the group.

Based on the core areas we were curious about, we structured the half day meeting into two parts: engaging in a mock (and rapid) design activity around the issue of supporting youth trajectories and pathways, and then having a free flowing, focus group-esque conversation where the group both reflected on the design activity they just engaged in and gave feedback on what it might look like to engage in a more prolonged and robust collaborative design process with Hive members.

While we won’t go through the blow by blow of the design activity and the entire conversation that followed, we did want to share what we saw as the major points of feedback that the group provided:

  • Provide a very clear sense of the value proposition for participation in a collaborative design process.
  • In providing a value proposition, give prospective participants rationales that both speak to them personally (as people likely already invested in the idea of Hive to varying degrees) as well as ones they can use within their organization to justify taking the time, effort, and, potentially, organizational resources that might be required.
  • It’s likely much easier for Hive members to plan ahead to participate in a 1-2 day intensive charette or hack jam style event than it might be for ongoing engagement over the course of a, say, six week process. One model to consider might be holding an intensive charette and then empowering and supporting groups and projects that come out of that in a more tailored fashion that doesn’t need to involve all original participants.
  • Be sure to capture what Hive members see as core challenges to reaching the design objectives that they’d be working towards.
  • Frame problems and possible design solutions in “if/then” format. For example, “If we want to better support robust youth trajectories and pathways for learners in Hive NYC, then we need <insert design solution/proposal/practice/project here>.”
  • Don’t shy away from presenting participating Hivers with very specific design problems that are sub-issues within the areas of interest, just being sure to leave space for them to totally do their own thing. For instance, for the goal of better supporting youth trajectories and pathways, we can leave that as a basic design space to work in, but also provide specific areas such as “design a way to improve pop-up events so that they operate as ‘on-ramps’ into further engagement”‘ or “design a way that youth coming from Hive member organizations can find internships in areas they’re interested in”, etc.

Moving forward, we’re going to take the feedback we got and work in the next month or so to solidify our plans for the first co-design cycle to launch after the new year. In doing so, we’ll combine what we learned from this prototyping session with the insights from related research methodologies including design-based implementation researchparticipatory design, and participatory action research to gain additional perspective on what others have done, the challenges they’ve faced, and the successes they’ve had.