Authority impedes innovation

If I had to refer to one book to help me navigate a new and potentially hostile social environment, it would be Ender’s Game.

It’s the story of a child prodigy who saves mankind. But more than that, it’s about entering a new world where you don’t know who to trust and how to survive. It’s a story about risk, deceit, competence, loneliness, character and audacity.

I have a lot of notes and highlighted passages from this book. And one that caught my attention this morning is the following:

“He kept sitting out the army practice sessions, and kept working hard on his own, with Petra in the morning and his friends at night. More Launchies were joining them now, not on a lark but because they could see results — they were getting better and better. Ender and Alai stayed ahead of them, though. In part, it was because Alai kept trying new things, which forced Ender to think of new things to cope with them. In part it was because they kept making stupid mistakes, which suggested things to do that no self-respecting, well-trained soldier would even have tried. Many of the things they attempted turned out to be useless. But it was always fun, always exciting, and enough things worked that they knew it was helping them.”

Now, keep the ideas from that passage in mind—particularly the part about the things that “no self-respecting, well-trained soldier would even have tried”—as you consider another excerpt. This time from James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games:

“It is therefore essential to the effectiveness of every title that it be visible and that in its visibility it point back at the contest in which it was won.”

And one more from the same:

“The more powerful we consider persons to be, the less we expect them to do, for their power can come only from that which they have done.”

What these three excerpts have in common is a concern with authority. And specifically, how authority influences the pursuit of innovation.

At the point in Ender’s Game which that passage is from, Ender is on the come up. Yes, he’s recognised as a prodigy, as a potentially powerful individual. But he hasn’t proved it yet. He hasn’t established his authority so he has nothing to risk when he’s training and experimenting and trying new, risky manoeuvres.

And the point I think Carse is hinting at is similar. Once you establish authority, gain a title, come to own property or win a position in a hierarchy, your conduct changes. Because you have something to lose, you become more risk averse. Your present and future becomes orientated towards protecting what you attained in the past.

On both an individual and organisational level, authority impedes innovation. Those who have achieved “success” in past games are less likely to play new games, and compete under different rules. They cling more to the certainty of their win in the past than they do to the open-ended possibilities of the future. But those with no authority, who are accompanied by no renown or prestige or possessions, are less risk averse. Having nothing from the past to lose or protect, they can afford—and are more willing—to experiment and to innovate. 

I suppose you could say that if you wish to remain innovative, you have to avoid accumulating authority.