To read this content please select one of the options below:

The illusion of technique: sustained enterprise innovation as an aspirational problem

Thomas Duening (Department of Management, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA)

International Journal of Innovation Science

ISSN: 1757-2223

Article publication date: 22 June 2018

Issue publication date: 24 May 2019




This paper is based on insights from philosophy of science, centered in Gilbert Ryle’s notion of “category mistakes”. A category mistake occurs in a science when scholars have been thinking of a phenomenon as of a certain sort, when it is really nothing of the kind. This paper aims to claim that regarding sustained enterprise innovation (SEI) as a strictly operational problem commits such a category mistake. Instead, SEI is an aspirational problem and thus requires scholars to examine it from that perspective as well.


This paper begins by explicating Ryle’s notion of a category mistake. It develops the suggestion that innovation scholars have made such a mistake by thinking of innovation as a strictly operational problem. In reality, it is as much an aspirational problem. The paper then builds on the metaphor made famous by Isaiah Berlin, distinguishing between hedgehogs and foxes. A hedgehog is a leader who copes with the non-predictive nature of innovation. The paper builds on the findings from positive psychology and virtue epistemology to highlight how humans can act rationally in the face of non-predictive outcomes. Four virtues of hedgehog leadership are proposed and defined.


The paper concludes that hedgehog leadership is necessary for sustained enterprise innovation. It also concludes that hedgehogs can act rationally in pursuit of non-predictive outcomes by practicing a set of governing virtues.

Research limitations/implications

Further research needs to be conducted to validate the proposed governing virtues, to illuminate the optimal hedgehog/fox balance within the enterprise, and to validate through longitudinal work the impact of hedgehogs on sustained enterprise innovation.

Practical implications

Based on the continuing interest in innovation expressed by enterprise leaders around the world, hedgehogs are in increasing demand. Fortunately, hedgehogs can be made (and self-made) via deliberate practice of the governing virtues. Aspiring and current hedgehogs can be confident that practicing these virtues and becoming increasingly adept at their application will promote and effect enterprise innovation.


Very little research has been conducted on the aspirational aspect of SEI. This is an insidious gap in the literature, as it affects scholars and practitioners alike. Scholars are trapped in the “normal science” paradigm that treats the innovation problem as if it can be solved through operational techniques. This paper contends that this ubiquitous category mistake has led scholars down a blind alley. Instead, it is important for scholars and practitioners alike to view SEI as an aspirational problem that requires vastly different research frameworks and practitioner prescriptions.



Duening, T. (2020), "The illusion of technique: sustained enterprise innovation as an aspirational problem", International Journal of Innovation Science, Vol. 11 No. 2, pp. 162-176.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

Related articles