It’s Time To Celebrate Maintenance

In September, I volunteered at the Festival of Maintenance in Central London. The Festival was put on by volunteers to celebrate and bring attention to the little-loved but very necessary practices that go towards maintaining the things and people around us every day.

The Festival brought together a group with very diverse experiences: doers and makers of the online and offline world, academic historians interested in maintenance and re-use, maintainers of communities, spaces and social relations, and more. The Festival was very well received and was even written up in The Economist.

One of the main themes of the day was the importance of giving maintenance its proper recognition in relation to innovation and invention. It won’t surprise anyone to hear that those at the Festival of Maintenance were fairly critical of the buzz and fanfare that surround innovation today. David Edgerton points out in his book on the subject that nearly all studies of technology focus on invention to the exclusion of the implementation or maintenance of technologies.

It is Edgerton’s thesis that the use is a much more useful and accurate lens through which to view technology than its invention. This approach brings to light surprising insights. For example, we tend to think of the 19th century when we think of coal power because that’s when it was most closely associated with new technologies and inventions. However, more coal was burned in the year 2000 than in 1900. From a usage perspective, coal has not been decreasing in importance but increasing.

Maintenance versus innovation?

The Festival as a whole was a provocative and eye-opening experience. It was also a strange experience – after all, Stripe Partners specialises in innovation. We spend our time and effort doing the research, ideation and facilitation that produce innovation that works. Our work is nearly always focused on new offerings, new markets, new consumer groups.

The Festival got me thinking: are maintenance and innovation necessarily antagonistic? Is it a zero-sum game in terms of investment and share of mind? Of course if we treat them as antagonistic endeavours they become so, but it is not inherently the case. In fact, what innovator or inventor wouldn’t want their legacy to be maintained? And what object or process that must be maintained wasn’t an innovation when first brought about?

When done well, the two are actually intertwined and mutually reinforcing: good innovation is designed to endure and good maintenance is happy to incorporate a new tool or method when effective. Alex Mecklenburg, a leadership consultant and coach who spoke at the Festival, had something similar in mind when she compared the balance of innovation and maintenance to gardening, where one has to equally look back on past decisions and forward to future seasons. She shared a quote from poet Gary Snyder: “Creativity and maintenance go hand in hand. And in a mature ecosystem as much energy goes to maintenance as goes to creativity.”

There are two facets of maintaining innovation that I want to explore. The first deals with how teams can be set up to sustain initiatives and the second deals with how we treat failure.

How can teams maintain innovation?

There are three key ingredients that teams in charge of maintaining initiatives must have: ownership, alignment and passion.

That those responsible for an initiative feel ownership over it may seem obvious. Hierarchy can easily become an obstacle here however. Often those wielding the decision-making powers over an initiative are not the same people as those who will be responsible for the day-to-day implementation and upkeep. When teams come together, whether in the ideation phase or in upkeep, it is essential that all participants are free to constructively challenge and question all aspects of the initiative. This is especially true if more junior staff are going to be responsible for the day-today upkeep as they may be asked to maintain something they don’t truly feel ownership over – not a good recipe for success.

Separation between business units can also prevent the necessary sense of ownership. If innovators come up with ideas just to pass them down the line to the team in charge of “business-as-usual,” you get innovators who don’t have to deal with the repercussions of a poor concept and you get implementers who don’t feel that the concept is something of their own, that it belongs to them. Mecklenburg has found, for example, that even putting these distinct teams together in the same space for a while can allow them to exchange perspectives and develop a shared sense of ownership.

Which brings us to alignment. We’ve written about the importance of alignment and how it can be brought about here. Without alignment about the final goal and the path to it, team members will work at cross-purposes, making the necessary work to sustain the initiative overly time-consuming and energy-consuming. Eventually essential tasks will fall through the cracks as misunderstandings increase and the buck is passed around and around.

Last but not least is passion. Think about a vintage sports car lovingly kept in pristine condition. We tend to maintain the things we care most about. Health and wellbeing is another example. Our possessions can fall apart, be thrown away and then replaced — we have no choice but to maintain our bodies and to try to keep our loved ones in good health. If those maintaining an initiative are only doing their job, if they are not passionate about it, perhaps it will be kept running but it will not be kept pristine.

Success and failure

Finally I want to touch on how is failure defined and how we view success. We tend to think of successful innovations or inventions bursting into life fully formed based on some infallible core insight or the pure genius of the innovator. Steven Johnson argues against this view in “Where Good Ideas Come From” where he shows how revolutionary ideas from Darwin’s theory of evolution to the internet were the culmination of years or even decades of building (of theories or technologies) and refinement rather than eureka moments.

There are numerous examples of this: James Dyson worked on his first vacuum for 15 years, iterating over 5,000 prototypes. WD-40 is so named because it was the 40th attempt at a solvent that provided Water Displacement. In this view, successful innovation starts to look more and more like maintenance – a process of tinkering and refining, of trial and error until the pieces fit just right.

Perhaps in a perfect world, innovators and maintainers aren’t distinct at all – those who work with things, processes and people are always involved in a bit of both. They keep things running while trying to always improve them or do things just a bit differently. Perhaps the ideal pathway to innovation isn’t looking for that magical breakthrough but always pushing towards a future vision, trying an approach and fixing what doesn’t work, replacing pieces here and there, always iterating and improving rather than discarding the initiative altogether and starting from scratch.

// Calen Cole

More from the Stripe archive:

Aligned teams that just know what to do

A Weekly Stripe leading up to the Festival


Festival of Maintenance website

Recorded talks from the Festival

Review of David Edgerton’s book

Alex Mecklenburg is on Twitter @petite_a and her website is: