Using old stuff in new ways: Innovation as a case of evolutionary tinkering


  • Mary Bryna Sanger,

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    • Mary Bryna Sanger is Associate Professor of Urban Policy Analysis and Management, Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy, New School for Social Research.

  • Martin A. Levin

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    • Martin A. Levin is Director, Gordon Public Policy Center, and Professor of Political Science, Brandeis University.


We analyze more than 25 successful innovations and innovators and draw three principle lessons. First, innovation does not spring from systematic policy analysis nor is it generally a revolutionary breakthrough. Innovation more often depends upon evolutionary tinkering with existing practices. It results, therefore, from a process of trial and error and experimential learning in the field. Its novelty arises from the assemblage of familiar stuff in new ways. Second, analysis is more useful in shaping effective policy by evaluating it as it develops rather than in choosing between competing policies ahead of time. Third, innovative public managers are entrepreneurial; they take risks with this old stuff, with an opportunistic bias toward action and a conscious underestimating of the bureaucratic and political obstacles their innovations face. We conclude with prescriptions for how public managers ought to be trained and how they ought to behave.