How to Steer a Controversial Innovation Towards Success

For centuries, rebel innovators have been breaking the rules, flouting conventions, and attempting to build new paradigms. Most have failed, and all have faced backlash – or worse still, indifference – from the mainstream actors with the power to legitimize their innovations. Those few who have managed to establish mainstream legitimacy, however, have gone on to shape history.

Indeed, mainstream legitimacy has been crucial to the success of such controversial innovations as nouvelle cuisine, modernist architecture, as well as radical new artistic movements. Legitimized innovators have been able to attract wide attention and interest, become role models for peers, and secure the resources necessary for survival. Meanwhile, those actors with the power to legitimize controversial innovations are often, if not always, reluctant to break the established codes on which their value systems rely.

So how have controversial innovators overcome this contradiction? Is there a formula for achieving mainstream recognition without making compromises and respect despite the mainstream’s natural resistance?

Building on existing research, that already considered fine arts to investigate innovation, we’ve focused on the Impressionist movement at the turn of the last century, a stunning example of a controversial innovation brought about the mainstream shift from classical to modern art. We constructed a detailed event history database to establish how this artistic movement emerged from the periphery to claim consecration, whereby a controversial innovation is deemed both legitimateand distinct.

Based on our findings, we develop an emergent theoretical model that depicts two types of strategies – enforcing distinctiveness and extending support – that permanently interact.

Asserting distinctiveness

Distinction is about being different from the norm. However, being too distinct can lead to exclusion and marginalization. This is why innovators will often feel pressure to tone down their distinctiveness. Previous research, in fact, has often concluded that controversial innovations are more likely to be accepted when their divergence from the norm is minimized. Our research, however, finds that the impressionists encountered success precisely because they asserted their distinctiveness.

They did so by actively pursuing critical interest and eventually earning the public’s curiosity. Even though this publicity was largely negative in the short term, in the long-term it helped them attract new collectors, including merchants or industrialists interested in departing from established tastes. Better still, these new collectors were willing not only to buy artwork but also to support impressionist artists in different ways and secure the financial resources they lacked.

With the help of dealer Durand-Ruel, the impressionists also asserted their distinctiveness by organizing recurrent collective exhibitions which contributed to the idea that not only was Impressionism very distinctive from the academic style, the impressionists were also different from the other artists rejected from the Salon. Furthermore, they began developing ties between the members of their group to ensure its coherence: For example, Monet and Renoir worked together, while Caillebotte and Pissarro strived to organize regular group meetings. Our findings suggest that this ongoing, active enforcement of distinctiveness habituated art critics to impressionism, which was reflected in discourses that became more nuanced even if opponents still disliked Impressionism.

For more, see: How to Steer a Controversial Innovation Towards Acceptance and Success.

Article by Bernard Leca, From the paper “The Paradox of Controversial Innovation: Insights From the Rise of Impressionism, by Helene Delacour (University of Lorraine) and Bernard Leca (ESSEC Business School), Published in Organization Studies, 2017.| Knowledge ESSEC Business School | Image: Pixabay | Copyright © Group ESSEC 2018 All Rights Reserved.

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