Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

Kafka and the experience of innovation in bureaucratic organisations

Kars-Unluoglu, Selen; Jarvis, Carol; Sheffield, Rob


Selen Kars
Associate Professor in Organisation Studies

Profile Image

Carol Jarvis
Professor in Knowledge Exchange, Public and Business Engagement and Innovation

Rob Sheffield
Occasional Associate Lecturer - FBL - BAM


Different theories and models of innovation compete for legitimacy and popularity. Despite variations, all offer a pro-innovation bias, implying that some kind of innovation system that enables them to try fast, fail often and small, learn quickly and evolve continuously has to be adopted by all members of the business environment to survive and succeed.
This paper looks at innovation from a different perspective and asks, what happens when this paradigm is applied to a formal-rational organisation characterised traditionally by a bureaucratic approach? To address this we provide a reading of Franz Kafka’s work The Castle and take case study approach to applying these representations and insights in a UK health-care organisation. We explore how real managers tasked with innovation and service development experience and lead innovation while accepting the seemingly insurmountable difficulties posed by traditional organisational processes and systems.
Taking this approach, the paper makes four observations. First, like the Land Surveyor K. in The Castle who struggles unsuccessfully to gain admittance to the Castle despite being recruited and instructed by the Castle authorities, innovation managers often find that the formal and informal systems and processes mismatch. Second, alike K., innovation managers spend time and energy trying to find their way through the bureaucratic labyrinth by talking to others, building networks and connections. Third, like the village, organisational life has an illusion of pace and action providing countless opportunities for keeping actors busy whilst in reality each of these opportunities distract the innovation managers further from their (unobtainable) goal. Fourth, like K., many innovation managers are bureaucratised throughout their adventure and subsumed by the system leaving them tired and lifeless as if even being frustrated with illusionary promises of the Castle takes too much energy.
We argue that Kafka’s intense portrayal of ways in which individuals can become lost in bureaucratic machinations and the uneasiness this creates is at the very of heart of innovation management in formal-rational organisations. Using Kafka’s counter-mythologies as a framework we propose the development of a more relational, performative approach to studying innovation in alternative contexts. For a reasonable chance of this to happen, we – innovation scholars and practitioners – need to take a much more agnostic and critical stance towards any innovation management proposal than we typically do now.


Kars-Unluoglu, S., Jarvis, C., & Sheffield, R. (2017, July). Kafka and the experience of innovation in bureaucratic organisations. Presented at 35th Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism

Presentation Conference Type Other
Conference Name 35th Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism
Start Date Jul 10, 2017
End Date Jul 13, 2017
Acceptance Date Feb 28, 2017
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Keywords bureaucracy, innovation, Kafka, health care, fiction, longitudinal qualitative study
Public URL
Additional Information Title of Conference or Conference Proceedings : 35th Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism