Image: Agitators at work at Heathrow Airport.

A shorter version of this post also appeared at the Tools for Hope blog.

An article in Stanford Social Innovation Review argues that it takes three types of leaders to make social innovation happen: the agitator, the innovator, and the orchestrator:

An agitator brings the grievances of specific individuals or groups to the forefront of public awareness. An innovator creates an actionable solution to address these grievances. And an orchestrator coordinates action across groups, organizations, and sectors to scale the proposed solution.

The article is by Julie Battilana and Marissa Kimsey, and a couple of things struck me straightaway about this model. All work on change has a theory of change embedded in it–indeed all futures work should have a theory of change embedded in it, implicitly or explicitly–and the theory of change here is very similar to the systemic view of change that underpins the Three Horizons model. Obviously I’ve written about that a bit on this blog, but just in case you have missed it, here’s the 60-second guide.

Figure 1: Three Horizons

(Image: International Futures Forum)
Working through the horizons in the usual way, Horizon One is the dominant or prevalent system today, typically run with a managerial mindset (“our job is to keep the lights on”). Like all system, its fit with its environment decays over time. Horizon Three is peopled with visionaries who have visionary alternatives to the present system (“electricity should be produced locally”/we shouldn’t be burning coal to keep the lights on”, etc), which may still lack effective models of delivery. Sitting between the two of them are the entrepreneurs in Horizon Two, who attempt to build delivery models that may be underpinned by different business models or different types of delivery mechanism or supporting institutions (“what if every user of light also produces power?”). These Horizon Two models are likely to be beyond prototypes but still living in niches. (Think of Tesla’s approach to EVs, for example).

Structural innovation needs all three

The second is that although they are writing about social innovation, this model applies to pretty much any kind of deep or structural innovation (Disruptive? Transformative?). You need all three roles; the authors think they might blur, but I’m not completely sure about that. Anyway:

Agitation without innovation means complaints without ways forward, and innovation without orchestration means ideas without impact.

And maybe one more thought. Large organisations are usually full of orchestrators, lighter on innovators, and go out of their way to persecute agitators. In fact, there’s usually a whole corporate lexicon to disparage them, starting with “cynical” and escalating quickly from there. I recall that Apple was said for while to have someone whose job it was just to ask questions, though I can’t find a link. That is a kind of agitator role. Mostly that tired and tedious managerial mantra about “Bring me solutions, don’t bring me problems” makes sure that no-one ever raises the challenging structural issues that might also be fruitful areas for innovation.

The article is fairly detailed, and discusses at reasonable length how each innovation role works–and what goes wrong when they overdo it. You don’t have to agree with all of this; for my money the trap the innovator is more likely to fall into is not having a narrative or metaphor that communicates their idea at a visceral level, and quickly. There’s also a useful summary chart showing how each of the different types of leaders use in different ways the kinds of skills that leaders typically deploy.

Figure 2: Leadership skills for social innovation

(Battilana and Kimsey, Stanford Review of Social Innovation)

Punctuated equilibrium

One interesting aspect of the argument is that in the case study the authors use, of the French youth service organisation UnisCité, the leaders started out seeing themselves as innovators, but had to switch roles to agitators when the political climate changed and it became necessary to make the public case once again for youth service. As the article notes more broadly, mobilizing for social change is an “inherently political process.” But we tend to think of Three Horizons as a process that works its way from the visionary Third Horizon through the entrepreneurial Second to the managerial First. Systemic change is not usually as tidy as that. In fact it usually evolves through the interplay of punctuated equilibrium and dynamic conservatism.

Punctuated equilibrium is a classic characteristic of systemic change. There are long periods of stasis where the Horizon One is held in place because of lock-in generated by the interplay of actors, social institutions, rules, social expectations and business models, but these are punctuated by periods of relatively rapid change when the dominant system evidently lacks fitness to its environment, and alternatives open up.

But the other half of that is dynamic conservatism: Donald Schon’s observation that all institutions adapt–in response to external or environmental change–by the smallest amount necessary to absorb the change. In practice influential actors adapt then push back again.

Three Horizons practice has something pragmatic to say about this. The International Futures Forum has developed a useful set of triads that characterise the the expectations that the different Horizons bring to conversations with the other two. When you look at the language around the negative one, immediately below, it is clear that these conversations are going nowhere.

Figure 3: Bad moon rising. Negative conversations in the Three Horizons

(International Futures Forum)
In contrast, in the positive version, underneath it, you can see scope for change. There are enough hooks in the dialogue to offer hope to everyone, and, importantly, respect for everyone in the system.

Figure 4: Long as we can see the light. Positive conversations in the Three Horizons

(International Futures Forum)