How to Steer a Controversial Innovation Towards Acceptance -- and Success

How to Steer a Controversial Innovation Towards Acceptance -- and Success

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.


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.

Extending support

Previous research has also suggested that innovators could benefit from the existence of market niches where the pressure of the dominant actors were reduced and where support could be obtained while waiting for the established codes to evolve. Our research finds, however, that the impressionists actively fought to extend their notoriety beyond the safety of their niche markets to seek official consecration - in other words, to be considered legitimate and distinct because they are “above” norms.

Consecration was a slow process, and for a long time the majority of critics continued to expressed outrage at what they saw as a lack of respect of the academic tradition. However, the impressionist slowly built up around them a coalition of supportive critics who pursued their efforts to theorise this distinctiveness, suggesting that such innovativeness, more interesting than academic art, should deserve attention rather than hostility or indifference. They argued that conveying impressionism was the best way for artists to express their idiosyncratic genius and avoid slavish imitation.

Our analysis reveals that these supportive critics mythologised Impressionism, portraying them as heroes ahead of their time and celebrating their distinctiveness as a crucial artistic value. Supportive critics succeeded in transforming what had initially been received as controversial into something positive and highly valuable.

The impressionist also sought consecration by donating paintings to the State while their supporters lobbied officials on their behalf. These efforts culminated in the Universal Exposition of 1900 where impressionism was officially consecrated as the most important achievement of French art over the century.

While previous research suggests that innovators looking for immediate attention should instead adopt established codes, our analysis ultimately reveals that enforcing distinctiveness allows it.

In short, this reveal the importance of distributed strategies developed by loosely coordinated members of a coalition of innovators and supporters. We argue that steering a controversial innovation towards consecration requires simultaneous and potentially contradictory strategies: strategies aimed to enforce the distinctiveness of this controversial innovation, as well as aimed to extend support for it. Controversial innovators may be surprised to learn that the contradictory tensions between these strategies may be what help them achieve success in the mainstream.

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