Innovation history

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Contributing author
Ronald Mackay

Preparing an ‘innovation history’ is an option for recording and reflecting on an innovation process.

People who have been involved in the innovation jointly construct a detailed written account (sometimes referred to as a ‘learning history’) based on their recollections and on available documents. The process of preparing this history stimulates discussion, reflection and learning among stakeholders. Subsequent planning drawing on the innovation history, can (i) build on the lessons learned, (ii) inform a shared vision, (iii) act as a catalyst for change and (iv) improve future performance.

An innovation history is developed in stages. Based on the initial detailed account of the innovation process, more concise informational products can be prepared that summarize the innovation process for internal use. Products designed for wider dissemination of findings can help external parties build upon and expand their knowledge and understanding of how innovations are brought about. Such products may include public awareness materials, policy briefs and articles in professional journals. They may be based on the study of an individual case or on reviews that compare and contrast experiences across several cases.

Innovation histories are underpinned by two sets of concepts that guide data gathering and analysis. The first set comes from a model of the innovation process called the ‘learning selection’ model (Douthwaite, 2002). The second set is derived from social network analysis (e.g. Cross and Parker, 2004). These concepts help participants involved in creating the innovation history to appreciate innovation as an evolutionary process driven by experiential learning cycles. The experimentation and learning involved in this evolutionary process leads to the generation of novelty, followed by its selection and promulgation. During this process, technologies become ‘fitter’, in the sense that they perform better. Stakeholder group’s social networks influence how this evolutionary learning selection process evolves hence the importance of identifying, tracking and documenting them.


Advice for CHOOSING this approach (tips and traps)

  • Assurances should be given that quotes and interpretations will be properly verified with individuals before internal or external distribution.
  • The same advice offered by the authors of “Institutional Histories” appears to apply to “Innovation Histories”:
  • The preparation of a good institutional history requires an environment conducive to listening and reflection. Facilitators with knowledge of institutional change processes are also essential to success. Facilitators can at times be seen by some partners as mediators. Bringing the institutional issues that result in conflict into a public rather than private space requires sensitivity and judgement on the part of the facilitator.

Advice for USING this approach (tips and traps)

Common mistakes in producing institutional histories:

  • Following guidelines too rigidly.
  • Being afraid to express opinions.
  • Seeking to use tools such as the actor linkage matrix and map as proof that the organization's linkages are strong.
  • Using timelines constructed by an individual or group before the project start.
  • Using the exercise to resolve project-related quarrels.
  • Allowing cross-project interviews to give too much emphasis to technical achievements or challenges.



Douthwaite, B. and Ashby, J. (2005). Innovation Histories: A option for learning from experience. ILAC Brief 5. ILAC, Bioversity; Rome
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