Central problems in the management of innovation

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Citation: Andrew H. Van de Ven (1986) Central problems in the management of innovation. Management Science (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Central problems in the management of innovation
Tagged: Business (RSS) management (RSS), innovation (RSS)


Van de Ven (1986) provides a sort of survey, step-back, and theory building moment in the literature on innovation more generally and acts largely as a sort of overview and literature review of the field up until that point. It is extremely broad in terms of the literature it pulls from.

It begins with the point that the innovation literature tends to contain a pro-innovation bias (something the paper is cited for more broadly) and then moves on to describes a series of "central problems" in the literature around how one can manage innovation. Memorably, Van de Ven explains that, "new ideas that are not perceived as useful are not normally called innovation; they are usually called mistakes."

He talks about the problems associated with the idea of managing ideas and, interestingly, cites literature on collective action (like Olson) and hints at the literature on social movements more broadly.

The core of his argument talks is broken down into a discussion of four central problems:

  • The human problem of managing attention which builds on a cognitive science literature and talks about physiological limits on humans, group limitations, and and literature on ways of managing attention.
  • The process problem of of managing ideas into good currency.
  • The structural problem of managing part-whole relationships with an emphasis on the organizational and structural barriers to collaboration on larger projects. It focuses on the idea of the "hologramatic" organization (i.e., design the whole into the parts) as one promising answer although further work on modularity has likely supplanted most of these suggestions.
  • The strategic problem of institutional leadership which connects to both "intra and extra-organizational factors" and to broader strategic questions of how an organization can become committed to seeing an innovation only well understood by one part succeed more broadly.

The conclusion of the article walks through a series of question which aim to tie these together.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Van de Ven (1986) remains a highly cited article in the literature on innovation and has been cited well over a thousand times. It provides a nice balance between a number of new suggestions and a good summary of previous work and points towards number of new testable theories. Due to to impressive breadth, it has been cited in a number of ways and for a number of its suggestions and observations.