Preparing Ourselves for Innovation Standards

There has been  going on for a good few years, the continued debate around finding and adopting a set of standards for innovation. I blow a little hot and cold on this, this is not dependent on the time of day but the very “force” that is pushing any agenda along on this. Far, far too much of those that push for standards have often very narrow agenda’s, where this fits their commercial purpose but often you gain that feeling that these are not as aligned to the broader innovation communities as they should be.

There are two camps- the ones that relentlessly drive towards standards and those looking to have a more “open” view looking to ‘simply’ achieve a common language.

Are standards the real drivers of innovation?

There are seemingly many ways to innovate and is it just a little simplistic to standardise innovation and reduce it down to a set of basic common parts? Innovation comes more from evolution, revolution, radical and disruptive forces being applied, will these benefit from having innovation standards or be constrained. Would ‘standards’ be like the basic diploma like an architect for instance, who is taught the theory of the basic principles but who can see well beyond and challenges those existing boundaries and accepted norms, and in so doing pushes design into a new future but still draws down from this their initial ‘qualification?’

Innovation often arrives from the need to rapidly respond to crisis, it can need to bridge and move across disciplines and concepts, it might emerge from the intersection of ideas, concepts and cultures ( The Medici Effect reference) or it can draw from business, science, art and politics. How do you attempt to standardise, let alone capture for these?

Do standards get simply boiled down to that “de-facto” factor that we all have to have to ‘qualify’ for procurement tendering, being able to attract funding or just being that piece of paper to get past the gate-keeper of the high morals and necessary standards? Do they draw in more, or exclude the best? Do they level the playing field or simply reduce the surface to one where it becomes muddy and no one can effectively play upon? Does it trigger a whole new industry of certifiers encouraged by the state or funded by the EU to establish “standards” at a cost? When they become mandated what really happens?

Clearly standard setting is a dry affair, it becomes caught up in technical issues, it gets bogged down in these ‘vested’ interests yet standards do have a potentially strategic importance to advance innovation beyond its present ad hoc organization.

Today innovation is caught in a silo itself

Today, innovation is locked in silo’s, it operates to support individuals not the broader community. The label can often be attached “buyer beware”. Today anyone can state they are the authority on either a model, concept, process etc.

My innovating friend Jeffrey Phillips suggests “there are a lot of people jumping on the (innovation) bandwagon selling the latest snake-oil to profit from a lot of (this) confusion”. He argues “innovation is still part black art” and full of ambiguity. He suggests standards move from “folk wisdom to wild claims to organized documented fact.” Finally Jeffrey suggest “we can no longer guess at whether or not we make profit” and “all good thinking can be codified so we can provide clarity of work”. Do you agree? He believes it is incumbent on innovation practitioners to begin to agree on standard innovation.

The other side of the argument lies in innovation having just a common language

Creating a common language, perhaps an open sourced taxonomy to start with, will unite the many stakeholders. Without a common language emerging perhaps innovation eventually becomes abandoned. The current disagreements, individual interpretations often have ego’s caught up in the stakes. There are a good number of present day innovation guru’s that might need to go back and relearn innovation and where it presently is and possibly heading.

We do have more unstructured innovation knowledge than structured to resolve many issues surrounding innovation. Often advice glosses over the understanding the individual context and applies those ‘broad brush’ strokes to anyone who cares to listen.

It is also true that innovation practitioners often chose to ignore or not enquire deeply enough about the circumstances or reasons why innovation is needed, they simply apply their standard solutions and often clients are caught up in the hurry to move on.

We are often also caught up in a certain “fixation”, in certain dogma’s, mindsets and biases that have negative consequences. The expert plays on the very ambiguity suggested earlier because often the knowledge is so unstructured. Unstructured knowledge leads to unstructured interactions that then leads to less than ideal end results, more disappointment than enlightenment. Innovation, I contend, is still unstructured knowledge waiting to be reorganized to the ‘greater benefit’.

So we should ‘rush’ to seeking out a common language? A common language for innovation promises greater depth in meaningful collaborations

Renee Hopkins stated recently she remains convinced that one of the biggest impediments to innovation and collaboration is this lack of common language to describe what we are doing. She suggests it will remain “slippery and mysterious concepts as long as we don’t use the same terms the same way”.  She doubts though that “we will all simply use language in a consistent way observing common definitions, since that would be contrary to the messy evolution that is language”

So are we doomed to wallow in the here and now of individual interpretations of innovation meaning and not feel we need to break out of this pit of frustrations, inefficiency and misunderstandings associated today with innovation?

I believe we should be optimistic and embrace both camps in parallel

We have a choice, we stay still and innovation simply dies out as a real force and morphs into a variety of different butterflies to light up our world going forward or it becomes the homing beacon for wealth and creation it is suggested that it can be. To achieve this it does need to be ‘nailed down’ to find solid ground that all can feel is sturdy and unshakeable to begin to build stronger structures upon.

Innovation ‘speaks’ of future survival but it needs a more robust framework that does deliver on that promise of being sustainable, repeatable, having long-term structures that drive understanding of where to go to begin to discover competitiveness and success. We do need to obtain some level of systematic management in all aspects to foster lasting innovation capabilities. This should be a combined language / action framework.

The emerging route that has been quietly travelled

In the EU, since 2008 there has been a constant level of activity around developing a consensus towards standards for innovation. Standards need to be consensus built, bottom-up structure. It needs to bring together all interested parties and they are often highly diverse. Yet a standard really is only a technical document designed to be uses as a rule, a guideline or a set of common definitions. It attempts to offer repeatable ways of doing something.

Within the EU there has been a technical committee working away under its reference of CEN / TC 389 for Innovation Management. They are developing standards under Innovation Management that covers in separate documents: creativity management,, innovation management assessments, innovation thinking, intellectual property management, strategic intelligence management and finally collaborative management. All of these are scheduled for very early in 2014.

There is one under drafting, I heard actually finished, waiting for sign off to be released in the next few months that covers Innovation Management- the innovation management system. Its project reference is FprCEN/TS 16555-1.

The EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation Màire Geoghegan-Quinn has promised to give this her full attention in 2013.

My closing thoughts and arguments at this time

In May 2011 I wrote a piece on this site under “My arguments for a common framework needed for innovation management” which you can view here http://tinyurl.com/8lh3jop and further strengthened the call with another piece recently “Identification sits at the core of innovation”, see here http://tinyurl.com/9ovekl2 . Both appeal for advancement, they push for solutions, we are crying out for these.

So I am certainly looking forward to the first release of a standard according to the EU. I’m not sure if I’m holding my breath in the greatest anticipation but I would just simply say “let the debate really begin” as there are so many benefits in creating both a common language within and alongside an innovation set of standards – it can be then built upon.

Like the Architect understanding the standard basics, they are wanting to push out and design, challenging the community, demanding better materials, better processes and application and this is the very time where I feel innovation desperately is in need of this fresh momentum. We can build far, far more from commonality than division.

What is top of your mind? Mine’s innovation

I’ve been watching the debate for the Presidency of the United States and thankfully the second one became a more ‘alive’ one, where you felt some real tensions on different issues. One of the most central discussion points was around jobs- creation, partly from bringing them back to America, and unleashing the Entrepreneurs from all that ‘crushing’ burden of bureaucratic ‘red’ tape but lacking in real specifics.

Innovation I noticed came to the rescue as that ‘certain’ word needed to be played, like a cloak you can hid behind, so the person waving its potential in magic dust will make us all feel happy,  that it will solve most of our problems. Apple was raised in the questions asked and how can the jobs overseas be brought back to the USA?   President Obama stated some of the jobs lost will not come back, those that are low skill, low wages and he wants to achieve high skill, higher earning jobs. I’m sure both candidates would want that and both know certain jobs will never come back.

Will Apple invest back in the United States in manufacturing unless there is a fundamental change in policy or consumer sentiment? They are more likely to invest on consumer sentiment than just policy alone, if it changed and suddenly there was demanded “I want home-made products, made within the US 100%” stamped upon them. Customers voting with their feet and wallets can deliver more than policy incentives alone. Pride of ownership might even replace status in ownership.

We need to turn the economic tide

The question for me as ‘top of mind’ is we still seem powerless to stop the economic flow away from US and Europe, unless we offer a really compelling message and put into place the structures, policies and incentive to achieve this, so people want to unite and then respond, otherwise we continue in ‘grid lock’, division and self-interest. We need a real call to arms- a rallying term used by proponents of a cause – and innovation needs to be at its centre. The smart building block based on knowledge acquisition, technology and entrepreneurs who see innovation as the new economic model.

In all I read and hear is that the very opposite is happening, the knowledge worker is either retiring, being marginalized by being placed in greater silos than ever and the influx of skilled workers or those that have potential, are hampered by not having the right skills to meet the roles being looked for. Equally they are being let down by the education system not positioning them to have these skills or to be prepared enough to satisfy potential employers.. Many people are simply in the wrong location, either within the country or where the jobs are within the world that might come, if the skills were available.

Both the USA and Europe are powers that are seemingly in decline and from what I see just simply don’t have even a half decent plan around innovation to pull us out of this deteriorating mess. Meanwhile in Asia and Latin America there is this ‘demand’ to move up the ‘food chain’, Governments are investing in education, in infrastructure, in offering modern facilities, a mobile work force and dangling powerful incentives to attract in the foreign investor. People across Asia and Latin America are hungry to progress while we in the West digress, distracted by hanging onto what we have in increasingly desperate ways.

Are we really tackling legacy?

The current system here in the West is largely a legacy one. Politicians, business leaders continue to defend, support and protect it. For a host of reasons, a legacy system continues to be supported in our Western societies and many are well past their really productive supported lifetime, resulting in growing support in maintenance challenges, huge lay-offs when reality finally hits home and little offered to replace it. Those within this current system still ‘extract’ from it, they need it because they either can’t see alternatives or simply can’t relate to the alternative. We need a grander plan and innovation vision to unite behind and move beyond supporting uncompetitive positions.

We are actually ‘locked-in’, dependent on legacies and creating the very barriers to make significant changes and alter this tide of the loss of jobs, wealth creation opportunities and this ‘dream’ sitting under the general ‘innovation’ banner. The ‘emerging’ are being choked off by the structures that surround them, like weeds holding back their growth. It is little wonder they thrive but seem to when re-potted in a more conducive climate overseas.

We are all becoming increasingly unhappy and disenchanted with our politicians

What is happening we are all getting that uncomfortable feeling that perhaps we are not facing up to reality, maybe what we hang onto for far too long, is not relevant and will not get us back to the ways we had before. We get more confused. We get increasingly angry. We are not really being told the realities, as this might unleash forces difficult to control. We do need a debate on the future, not the past, not the present but the future. “I will create X jobs or I have a X point plan” is just not good enough, perhaps President Obama just can’t tell us the future as it is not what we want to hear. So we stay stuck in the present deluding ourselves. How about if we all jump together?

How about a burning platform?

To achieve in innovation, there is this wisdom you need a “burning platform”- a place where we are forced to jump from to save ourselves. In a recent blog written by Shideh Sedgh Bina, shew comments on the dangers of this approach in this blog.

“One wrong approach to innovation is called “burning platform,” a concept that is taken, literally, from oil platforms out in the ocean that had caught on fire. How do you survive a burning platform? You jump off it into the ocean. And you jump fast….

..That creates a sense of urgency, which can be effective. You can certainly burn up business as usual with this approach. But how do you sustain momentum once your people have jumped off the burning oil rig? You don’t.”

The article does sums up what was missing in the debate when the innovation card is played- where is sustaining?

Where Shideh’s article ends is what was missing from the debates, by both candidates for the Presidency, and that sums up where we are definitely NOT having a vision and action plan to move us forward. Until we hear from either of the candidates, in their policies or solutions, as well as in their understanding of what future we can have by simply offering “innovation” as the bland answer does not make anything compelling. It just is rhetoric.

“People have a deep desire to be a part of something that makes a difference. Something that is meaningful. Something that is great. And leaders have to tap into that to inspire their people to make things better, to innovate, and to stop operating in business-as-usual mode, because that will create a better environment for everyone..”

Let’s stop offering up “innovation” as our magic elixir unless we have clarity on what needs to be different and going to allow for a return to a more meaningful live. We can’t live with much more of our legacies, they are dragging us down. We will not recover much of our past infrastructure prowess, we need a far, far bolder “innovation machine” as the key to the future.

We do need a real awakening I feel not just being kept awake.

Those that can offer a future in vision and intent will achieve a real awakening and this will come from innovation, if it is well understood and well structured.

Ok, a little ‘reaction’ of mine

I reacted after from hearing innovation being used in the debate last night, simply lacking any real coherence on its value or meaning and what it can give to us for a belief in the future. I’m sorry, sometimes you have to start talking more on your  “top of mind” that keeps you awake at night.

I do claim innovation is 100% of my focus so I should expect a few restless nights thinking about where it can help and often feeling powerless that those in power simple don’t get it. They can certainly talk about it only when it is politically expedient for them to do so.

Innovation gets my vote but it has to be linked to a clear plan of its place and value in our future and we need to have leadership in this, not waffle. By the way that is not the square crisp pancake type, but that vague way, left to us all to feel vaguely happy but left unclear. Lets get a real all-embracing innovation plan that ‘projects’ forward so we can all identify with a more promising future….please.

What is the missing cost of not innovating?

We can often be asked “what is the ROI on this particular innovation or alternatively, on our innovation activity?” This questioning increases particularly when there grows even more uncertainties in marketplaces, when you are forced into making tougher investment decisions, in allocating resources, in adjusting a strategy to meet changing circumstances. Then you get the “well, what’s the payback period then?” Often we struggle to offer a half-decent reply as most innovation has stayed mired in incremental approaches and so becomes fairly complicated in identify the new part from the old that is already the invested part, or it remains uncertain, as it is often exploring the unknowns.

Perhaps we should reverse this question or be ready to ‘gazump’ it and beat them to the question before they ask. Two specific ways to think about this come to mind. The first was suggested in a post back in 2005 by Ruth Ann Hattori called “the cost of not innovating” and I like this one. The other came from a post by my innovating friend and collaborator, Jeffrey Phillips “what are the opportunity costs on not innovating?”  Jeffrey is still not residing on a tropical beach as he still has not got the complete answer to that one. Both are tough questions but well worth reflecting over.

Merging both of their thoughts here and adding a dash of my own spice let’s explore this a little more

To quote from Ruth Ann’s article “What is the cost of not innovating?” What can happen when you don’t innovate but your competition does? If management’s evaluation of the cost of innovation is only focused on ROI and doesn’t account for the cost of not innovating, they are only seeing half of the picture and may be missing the half that’s strategically critical for the future.

Well how would you answer the following questions?

Again Ruth Ann nicely raises a few uncomfortable ones with some small adjustments on my part.

  1. In the past couple of years, have any of your competitors brought to market an innovative product/service that you had the capability to create but failed to bring to market? Why?
  2. Has someone recently entered your market/industry with a new or novel new business model that is placing your business at a higher risk than in the past?
  3. Have any of your competitors found a way to streamline or reinvent processes that you still struggle with, to become increasingly open and find new collaborative ways to speed innovation to the market?
  4. Have your customers begun to drift away in search of a completely new solution to an old irritation as they continue to experience frustrations with existing products?

The cost of not Innovating is the estimated dollar value your competitors have gained and that you have failed to capture through your own innovation efforts and this strikes more at the core of the need for ensuring innovation is well-managed and supported. The cost of not innovating includes everything you miss when your innovation efforts aren’t focused on your entire business process.

Can we compare the value of the missed opportunities to the opportunities we chose to pursue?

Jeffrey thinks the answer is a qualified “yes”.  He suggests “that is, we innovators should attempt to place a value on every innovation or every good idea, and suggest that the avoidance of innovation means that we miss out on new customers, new markets and most importantly, new revenues streams and new profits.  Those missed opportunities come at a cost – usually in disruption or product or service obsolescence.  This analysis requires a number of assumptions – that we can create a new product or service, that it has value or benefits to customers, and that we can assert some knowledge about the downstream revenues or profits that will be missed if we don’t innovate”.

Jeffrey puts it really well, do managers ever ask “what is the size of the opportunity we miss if we avoid innovating?” You should consider not just the short-term costs but also the longer term implications if you choose not to innovate by investigating and exploring all the options, otherwise someone else will slip into this ‘void’.

What needs to be recognized by all is that measuring ‘returns’ is really hard

Often the person asking the “what is the ROI on innovation” has never been involved in creating, designing or managing innovation. They can often be the ‘bean counter’, the hard-nosed CFO out to drive up the short-term performance, imposing short-term deadlines on getting the innovation launched within a given calendar year to meet much of his performance measures. They also often do not really appreciate that there are real disparities on time, investments and resources for managing an incremental project against one that leads to discovery or disruptive innovation and why these are dramatically different.

Of course we need to measure, including ROI, by attempting to qualify and quantify investments and their returns. ROI on innovation is just that much more complex. It is actually where you start in any discussion on returns. We should always start early; keep the dialogue going as thinking becomes validated by new data, by new understanding.

The most valuable return comes from creating ‘something’ that separates you from competition and has the potential for a sustainable advantage. We should actually start here.  Achieving this outcome raises the bargaining power; it raises the perceived value of future attraction from investors. Innovation that is different from other offerings in the marketplace gives you a clear space from the route that most travel, that of commoditizing the marketplace, often through everyone just pursuing incremental innovations.

Sadly, many within organizations are only given the one choice within their innovation hands are just the incremental cards to play with. These cards are the only ones dealt out by a leadership that often simply do not understand, or allow others to dictate, as they are not fully engaged in innovation and what it can truly offer. We need to raise the stakes, play innovation poker perhaps and ask the question of them “what is the true cost of not innovating? “What is the true cost of not engaging in innovation?”

Recently I’ve been making the case for closing the leadership gap on innovation.

So before I even get into asking “the cost of not investing in innovation” I’d look at the leadership gap or engagement with innovation as that gives a “fair” indication of where innovation truly fits, beyond just simply jargon and talk. We have to ask constantly where else do you grow a business, besides extending into new geographical areas – and tell me what is the investment in years and resources before you see returns here? Or you safely continue to incremental-away as your contribution to having a comfortable and safe life. That just might be one comment to far but might lend its self to being rephrased in a way that is palatable.

No, until we change much of the prevailing thinking, innovation is our only primary source of new wealth- of a country or organizations growth-to get true engagement, that is our real imperative to achieve. Innovation primary aim is to strengthen profit, not weaken it, to build on what we have with something that advances benefit and many often fail to recognize its place here also. We all wish to be part of something truly exciting and certainly can’t get that much excited if we are asked just to engage with innovation simply as ‘appropriately’ or without any real understanding of what is being asked but not supported. I wish we could get a greater innovation engagement.

Sadly the leadership tends to push innovation down the organization and in so doing is handing over their future, our future, and no wonder we are seeing shorter tenures at the CEO level. Investors and stakeholders can only live with this level of perhaps, at best, ‘steady’ performance for a limited time as this approach is increasing allowing for others to seize opportunities, chosen to be ignored often by current management or not fitting with their prevailing attitudes and tenure. It is time innovation sits ‘squarely’ in the middle of each board room, well represented and searching constantly in linking innovation to the strategy. I’ve outlined much on this alignment in different articles but start here to get into these previous articles.

So often too little too late

Just look at the attempted turnarounds left far too late because the warning signals were ignored or not wanted to be attempted, as they would have threaten the existing ‘core’ of what had been achieved and invested in, often build for different times. By taking a more evolutionary approach, they would see emerging the rising stars of  tomorrow where the organization will, over time, become their new core businesses.

Emerging new business help answer the “not investing” question

These emerging innovations or businesses may be step-outs from the core or more related extensions that simply need new capabilities and time to build. They might be completely new areas to invest in. Building successful future businesses requires much seeding but then the questions on “when do we get returns” rises up again-

A leadership team simply focusing on their short-term performance makes choices others never know about that are the real stakeholder, the real investors that take an equity stake. Why do investors often remain ‘blind’ to innovations that have horizons that are not within the annual review; even external board members often lack an innovation clarity that covers all the three horizons that innovation should be actively worked across.

The missing engagement for innovation at the top

A clear lesson or message lies at the heart of this missing engagement gap at leadership level. Either we invest and engage, to be beyond “average to good” in performance and drive the business with a “no compromise on innovation” mantra to get you above the majority and work hard at managing the risk and return equations this needs. I believe this is the pathway to a healthy, sustaining future and we need more of this “quest” for real growth.

Or you hanker down and become “frugal” and continue to par back to “good enough” where the majority of organizations wish to be, so they can safely draw down their ‘result package,’ You try to keep the majority of the ‘passive’ shareholders happy to receive a steady return on their investments. To achieve this often there is a need to sacrifice employee’s for the short-term and throw away their knowledge, trim away the products that don’t fit, divest in assets that don’t yield immediate return, attempt geographical expansion on a “foothold” strategy and with products simply adapted but not built from that markets understanding up. The final straw is the announcement of buy back schemes instead of investing in the future by committing to innovation. Risk and investment in the future has got lost completely. This is the pathway to eventual destruction but often the leadership choosing this path are not around to see the “bitter fruits” of these decisions.

This is our real innovation dilemma, our innovation blind spot when we look at where innovation fits within organizations, often we really do not know what is actually taking place. I believe innovation roadmaps should become part of the reviewing process to give a better indication of the areas of future promise.

Those that do constantly ask “what is the return for this innovation” really know this is hard but are often I feel defending the (their) status quo, wanting to maintain the existing practices, denying in themselves by ignoring what is going on around them and re-affirming short-term performance as the focus, at whatever cost. Those that look at innovation differently, across different horizons  are searching for opportunity, for new innovation pathways to a better, sustaining future. I very much subscribe to the three horizon approach to innovation where you operate in different mindsets and scenarios.

We do need to ask constantly “what is the cost of not innovating” and “what is the lost opportunities we missed” by avoiding or reducing innovation down to meet these short-term pressures. These that do want to engage in answering these two questions I feel, are really keen to explore and embrace the future through innovation. They recognize uncertainty and risk-taking are necessary needs in today’s more competitive environment and have to be a fair slice of the ‘investment pie’ going forward in managing.

Perhaps these are the perfect questions to ask each time –  it begins to sort out the visionaries from the plodders. Those engaged in innovation, those going through the motions. Then if you are still having difficulties in receiving replies then ask “well, what actually becomes the final cost when we are forced to respond, often when it is too late?

Let me know how you get on in your personal investment return by asking others about a lack if innovation investment. Be ready for a spirited discussion perhaps and look for a positive outcome. It improves everybody’s innovation rate of return.

Making innovation practice spread

Recently I have enjoyed reading Peter J Denning’s thoughts around innovation. He is Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Cebrowski Institure for information innovation at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

He discusses adoption, team practices, ubiquity, networks, language actions, the practice of innovation and other related topics. All are stimulating and worth finding the time to read but one caught my eye and I’ve gone back to it at least four, maybe five times. It intrigues me.  It is entitled “The idea idea” written in early 2011 and asks the question “What if practices rather than ideas are the main source of innovation?”

I think we all agree “ideas pervade our professional work” and as Professor Denning points out “we borrow them, we apply them, we solve problems with them, we create new ones, and we try to foster more of them in our teams”. We do put a disproportionately greater emphasis on ideas yet as he points out, all these great ideas and the energy applied to them we still end up with really poor adoption rates, he suggests our success rate in business are around 4%.

All of this ‘idea’ energy seems to be wasting so much time, resources and money. He puts this so well “we are idea rich, selection baffled and adoption poor”

The whole thrust of the article is perhaps that innovation is not ideas generated and I agree so much on this, but practices adopted. We need to spend more efforts on the skills and adoption of new practices and as he suggests “as the framework for new practices”

The two schools of thought

He suggests the two schools; if you believe ideas are the key to innovation you will put your efforts into generating, analysing, selecting and publicizing ideas where the emphasis is on creativity, imagination, borrowing and recombination. The other is adopting new practice as the key to innovation- the efforts go into selling others the value of doing new practice by building credibility it works, teaching people how to do it, furnishing tools to help them and providing the guidance and leadership to overcome obstacles and resistances.

I’m sitting more and more in the second school, I enjoy the first school of believing in ideas but I feel, well actually place my focus on the second school- the process of new practice. This is why and where I earn my living (or try too) or increasingly so. Also this is why I just keep going back to this article, it resonates so much for me, a confirmation of a confirmation.

He puts both cases well- outlining that “the diffusion model and the pipeline model share this common feature that they both put idea generation as their source. They differ on how ideas move from source to market”

The case of practices he starts by rightly stating “an idea that changes no one’s behaviour is only an invention, not an innovation”. He talks briefly of “the prime innovation pattern” as part of a new theory where innovators goal is to bring about changes of practice to change that “sense of disharmony” detected and they go through different activities to achieve this change. This gets to the point that the practice suddenly becomes adopted, someone starts doing something different, often in the early stages as improvisation, to overcome something blocking them from doing the job they need to meet. When it is seen as superior others imitate it, the practice spreads.

Where I feel Absorptive Capacity fit here

Many people have offered views on this adoption and promoting its practice as it is aiding making things better for others. I very much wish more people would look a little harder at Absorptive Capacity for many reasons, some of those I’ve previously outlined. The more we access, anchor and diffuse capability the greater chance for innovation. This links into Absorptive Capacity and for instance Zahra and Georges work on acquisition, assimilation, transformation and exploitation as the four phases of Absorptive Capacity.

Professor Denning rightly suggests it is finding the right balance between cultivating ideas and cultivating (new) practices. Maybe we should all question our balance on this?

He offers three thoughts

The iceberg theory- the visible top part (about 10%) is analogous to the set of ideas, the invisible submerged part (about 90%) relates to the practices of innovation. The practices keep the ideas afloat.

He suggests you beware of the idea idea- pursuing ideas for the sake of them- and you keep deferring adoption until the idea is perfected. He suggests you need to put 10% of your efforts into explaining the value and principles of your ideas and 90% into fostering the new practices you advocate and it is the work of adoption is from the beginning.

Lastly it is how  and what you learn from experiment and trial practices. It is then later  how you distil the knowledge gained into the pursuit of the emerging ideas, these emerging new practices. This makes for less value placed on ‘crude’ ideas, more on ‘refined’ ones that do raise the chance of market adoption significantly. You just keep filtering and improving, experimenting and exploring not just pushing ‘ideas’ simply through the innovation process. You seek to raise the adoption rates of not just translating the idea but the very new practices that get you to that success.

So, it is the connections between ideas and adoption, the idea adopted into practice, and it is the focus on the “dispersing” and “adapting” that accelerates innovation, simply not just the ‘idea’ alone worked through in ‘established’ ways.

What are your thoughts?

The Flickering Light of Social Innovation

Without doubt one of the most exciting areas of innovation, social innovation, that is developing initiatives that are attempting to tackle the real societal issues, has had a very tough time in the last year or so.

The need for social innovation and where it is contributing and aspires to resolve, has not gone away but it does seem to me, some of the energy and passion seems to have drained away in this time. Perhaps, in recent weeks, there are some signs of some emerging initiatives that are beginning to be ‘rekindle’ this social innovation flame but it seems in such incremental ways. Surely what is needed, is making bold leaps at this time not token gestures? We need to mobilize with a real intensity around many of the present social ills we are facing.

Recent losses in the movement for social innovation

Firstly for those involved in the social innovation movement the sad loss of Diogo Vasconcelos, who tragically died last year took away the champion of social innovation. Equally the move of Geoff  Mulgan from being the CEO of the Young Foundation into a broader CEO’s role at Nesta, where they certainly have shifted their recent focus in helping people and organizations bring great innovation ideas to life has altered where the emphasis needs to be placed for innovation in general, less so for social innovation.

This focus has been through providing investments and grants to mobilize research, explored through networks and building the skills necessary as the UK’s innovation foundation.

My feeling is that the focused energy, commitment and passion both of these individuals brought to social innovation has not been replaced as yet. It seems both organizations (Nesta and the Young Foundation) are actively exploring novel ways to support social innovation. Yet in these tough economic circumstances, at the very time these really need accelerating at a pace, it must be very hard to deliver the level and depth of solutions society needs and is crying out for? What we do need is more champions to be visible to keep social innovation shining in the headlights for our leaders to see and support.

I’m certainly not so encouraged that a recent competition announced  greatly accelerates and meets today’s real, pressing social needs in the ways we should be doing. We need a lot more movement and commitment than this, when we are facing over 25 million people out of work across Europe and up to 50% of young people in Spain and Greece unemployed and large parts of Ireland, Italy, Portugal, France, the UK all struggling to hold the level of the young, unemployed below 30%. The constant closure of businesses, the hardships of millions all caught up in the economic distress is causing us to face some of the most  serious economic hardships across most of Europe in our lifetime.

Perhaps we have had a void in this time? Has it got harder or easier in the past 12 months?

As I have sensed the energy has been seemingly lost in social innovation. Its past ‘raw’ passion has been replaced with a very different type of animal. There has been a major event in this time, in that the EU commission has taken social innovation into the heart of its future programmes. It wants to make the fixing of society’s most severe problems as central.

This, they are suggesting, needs to become a people-centred movement, which aims to create a more participatory practice-based process to find sustainable strategies for a socially and sustainable future. This planned adoption, this shift in the emphasis point of being more open and participatory, is actually a really daunting task to achieve.

The EU by taking hold of social innovation, might actually be squeezing out the very forces, the passion, the individuals commitments to social issues at a grass root level and replacing this with “people power” might be more volatile than they think. The shift suggested is perhaps beyond bold but reckless, unless it has a clear model to replace the existing, as these existing models are breaking down under the strains being imposed by austerity cuts.

Is this EU adoption a possible distraction, deflecting vital resources and commitment from the issues needing to be resolved in the here and now and attracting the ‘organizing’ resources away at a vital time to work on alignment and policy forming issues. Those that have actual experience to resolve social issues themselves get distracted away in aligning with the EU on its application of taking on social innovation. Can we afford that in these times? Unless we have emerging a Social Innovation equivalent of a Marshall plan as a Social European Recovery Program, SERP.

A real concern is that Brussels, the centre for EU policies and planning, has even less in common with the very real people that are actively engaged in the social solutions needed today. They march to a very different ‘beat’. Social innovation is by its very nature and attempt at tackling complex social problems experimental, cross-cutting, highly collaborative and very dispersed into pockets of local need and application.

It is going to be a struggle to fit social innovators with the Bureaucratic nature of the EU, less than risk-embracing, grappling with the severe economic problems across the EU community. So far the EU or national governments are not finding easy solutions to complex economic issues, can they add even more to their crowded agenda of social innovation. There is just too many questions being asked of the existing success or failures around the EU as an economic and financial block ? Adding social innovation at this time when the EU is defensive and under increasing attack is questionable.

We are facing austere cuts across many European countries, social initiatives are being caught up within all these economic cuts demanded. How can social innovation help solve the very issues when it is equally being starved of money, resources and focus?

There are countless acute needs for solutions

There is a growing need across the EU for support, both in material ways (creation of jobs) and psychological needs (to manage in these austere times). Is social innovation rising to these twin challenges to help resolve these urgent needs of today?

Deep within this ‘catch all’ of social innovation we need to prepare many for the most difficult transitions they are facing within their lives:  in loss of jobs, in their self-esteem, in their future and in their rights of choice, as these are being taken away from them in so many different ways. The destiny of many is being pre-determined by so many events out of their control and when people feel powerless, they ‘react’. Perhaps a very different type of “people power” than those in power would desire.

The ability to build ‘resilience’ is currently heavily shackled by a lack of money entering the system; the debt burden at individual, state and EU level is restricting options. Hard choices are casting more out of the participants of wealth creation, into being dependants upon others. Many are spiralling down.

In a world of networks and instant connections we are witnessing a growing sense of isolation, physical isolation. There are fewer people to turn too and ask for advice, for help, for recognizing their needs for support, because these people are becoming more hidden from plain view. They are increasingly on the margins, caused by policy revision, austerity cuts and become increasingly small in scale as they can’t find the voice of the past, that would stand up for them.

Social innovation is complex and challenging but it needs to deliver solutions today.

There are many ways to sketch an increasingly complex picture of social ills. There is a vicious spiral, turning to greater tensions and increased pressure points. There are moments of transition and social innovation needs to respond and respond quickly to these pressures.

We are facing growing health issues, ageing challenges, youth disenfranchisement, and communities breaking down, a growing sense of injustice, and lowering of well-being.

The social innovation light needs turning on brightly, it can’t simply flicker like it is now. There is no future if we can’t find pathways and real solutions to the problems we are facing today. Society needs to engage before it is “too little too late” and I fear we are far too close to the social equivalent of the doomsday clock of midnight.

Seeking engagement through innovation to galvanize growth

We need to become really worried over our potential to re-galvanize growth across many of our economies. There is this growing feeling that in Europe, perhaps even the United States, we are in for a prolonged drawn out ‘slump’ with the possibilities of a Japanese-style lost decade.

Crash austerity programmes are compounding deeper economic problems and we need to find ways to create more demand, yet it does seem our current approaches are placing increasing constraints on solving this growth need. Of course, the public debt to GDP for many countries is alarming but if you can’t fix the problems with achieving growth, you just get further into debt. It seems as the predicted ‘inflows’ continue to fall below the forecasted ones you are forced into borrowing more to even support the existing environment. This adds further struggles to hold onto some of the essential services we require to function and we seem to continue downwards in a collapsing spiral.

We are suffering from those evil twins, a lack of fresh investments and bold innovation, which are failing, by not doing the essential job of promoting growth, of leading demand, of creating the new wealth we desperately need.   The scale of our needs requires a different type of engagement, up and down our society; we need a new set of norms otherwise we will continue to witness some extremely painful adjustments across large parts of society.

Engagement means different things to different people

We do use the word ‘engagement’ just the same as ‘innovation’. They are thrown around and used in isolation, often to self-justify and defend, but until we can connect them in ways that generate a sense of real commitment, we cannot begin to create the conditions for sustainable growth.

The majority of people today are seemingly disengaging, pre-occupied with personal worries, gaining little incentive in what they see for their future. We need to turn this present trend around. On numerous surveys the level of people in ‘active engagement’ is around 20% in our business organizations for instance and the majority are ‘passengers’ or in cruise control, mostly detached from the bigger picture, so preoccupied, often with fear and apprehension or already caught in their personal economic traps, unable to see a way out.

The implications of this are profound and need radically altering.  

If this growing lack of engagement continues we lose the emotional connections, that sense of belonging, feeling part of something worthwhile and believing we are going to gain something in return. This return not only comes in financial ways but in a growing sense of trust, confidence to commit, for knowledge that you seek to explore and leverage, and for knowing and understanding you are part of something bigger, you ‘feel’ commitment.

This goes well beyond requiring ‘engagement’ in actions called for, it comes from drawing individuals into a broader community for meeting their expectations, for their alignment to working towards a future that is committed to working through a new way to act and collectively grow.

It moves beyond just “involvement and interaction” it needs to have “intimacy and influencing aspects” and here lies the potential impact that new innovation can bring. It gets attention, it brings engagement and tracks back to the propensity to share, to advocate, showing you are involved, participating and seeing the new value that innovation brings that you want to be part of. Engagement moves from being a goal to being a result through innovation. Engagement needs to be enacted at a multi-level -societal, organizational, team and individual.

At society level committed engagement is missing for innovation

Presently within the European Union the Horizon 2020 initiative where innovation is a central part, is stalled. It is not being adopted, no one can agree on the budgets, what to include, what to drop and sacrifice, it seems we are locked into many conflicting battles, deeply caught up in the austerity drive sweeping Europe. The very ‘instrument’ potentially seen to support and grow our economies is facing the same determined forces as witnessed in so many economies, to reduce it, so we stifle growth potential even further. If we cut too deeply into innovation will we have the capacity to return to any normality?

In the United States, the consistent call for innovation is like an annoying beat of a drum, it needs the rest of the band to turn up and start playing. We have a present government unable to play the decisive role, caught in the inability to fully function, whatever each person’s political views, where polarization is killing the potential to ignite innovation.

Again we are facing some tough questions as the Budget Control Act enacted in the summer of 2011 will require automatic cuts in discretionary spending to occur starting in January of 2013, commonly known as the sequestration, in order to achieve $1.2 trillion in savings through 2021. What will the effects of sequestration-based cuts have on U.S. productivity, competitiveness, employment and growth?

“There is no more important subject to the future of this society than innovation. There is nothing that can solve our problems in the way strong economic growth can solve our problems”- a quote from The New York Times Washington Bureau Chief, David Leonhardt recently.

With innovation so critical to tackling problems and so elemental to economic growth, it is dismaying that innovation is not our active point of engagement. We need to relearn making things and simply less on relying on making money and reliance on just ‘service.’ We might have lost much of our innovating roots.

The business leader needs to have more innovation engagement.

If we cannot engage employees within the workplace then innovation is deficient, it lacks the vitality. There is this overwhelming relationship between engagement and innovation. Innovation requires a real interest, a passion to want to question, to explore, to discover, to investigate. If we are not receptive to the ‘weak connections’ or ‘weak signals’ that need bringing together and associating in new ways we don’t move beyond the existing, we miss new horizons (http://goo.gl/hxKdv).

The business leader needs to offer the right environment to draw out our insights and not allow us to default across to what we already know as the only answer we can provide. They need to offer an engaging environment for innovation to be extracted in new ways.  I have written enough in this need for leadership to engage in innovation (http://goo.gl/jDBX1) in recent weeks, not to burn up more of your time on this except to say it is incredibly important to get this innovation leadership gap resolved. It is vital we get leadership engagement and involvement within innovation, greater engagement brings greater insight and that can lead to greater innovation activity.

Engagement is often more associated with Customers and Work place involvement

Employee engagement is a key part of any strategy. How ‘we’ engage with customers and suppliers determines much in building trust, gaining commitment and building relationships. The quality of these values has moved well beyond’ what’ an organization does but ‘how’ it does it.

Cris Beswick nicely put this in an article last year: “Innovation is within the grasp of every employee. Innovation is a message every growth-hungry organization has been trying to get across for some time. This means we can finally use ‘innovation’ as a form of engagement.”

He goes on and suggests innovation be used as a catalyst for changing your organization: “Where there is purpose, people can rationalize the need and the fear of the unknown is reduced”

So why is engagement within innovation so important?

Engagement can become the behavioural footprint in change, it can shift the mind of the person who it engages, and it can often place their contribution into context. Engagement becomes the catalyst for innovation but it needs to be continuous and well-constructed. It needs not just to hold people’s attention; it needs to offer the potential delivery of a better result. This then can channel the essential energy, to regain a feeling that their voice counts, is heard and valued.

People do want to belong, to share and collaborate but only where they see the value. If values can become aligned to achieve a greater sense of meaning, that it encourages and motivates. We all are far more ready to then be stretched, to want to explore, to seek out ways to collaborate and find new synergy we can associate with, and it is the art of engagement that draws us in, to seek out this new value.

We need today to generate new economic activity, to improve dramatically and create new solutions to claw ourselves out of the difficulties we are presently facing. If we don’t engage we are simply operating in the twilight zone and we don’t achieve the necessary impact needed for growth and getting ourselves of the enormous holes we have somehow dug ourselves into. This needs engagement across society, across communities and within each person to simply identify with.

High-yielding innovation needs a real engagement

Engaging in innovation offers the real potential for high-yielding innovation, this can inspire us but it needs commitments by all to get involved, to interaction in more positive ways, to influence and be intimately involved, to become simply engaged. If we don’t become engaged, we can’t hope to emerge from the times we are in.

Engaging in innovation, I’d argue, can certainly lead the way but we need alignment at all levels from policy, through implementation, creating the right conditions and execution, so we can achieve a positive impact for our societies. We need to move beyond ignoring where we are, we need to draw a line on how we got to this point or what needs to be done, and return to clear engagement, stewardship and commitment.

We need to deliver a new purpose, based on innovation as the enabler, to solve our problems and regrow our economies. We all need to engage in this. I think we need too, as the alternative disengagement across society, is not a place to go but we are seemingly heading that way unless we find ways to change and quickly. We do need to engage with innovation at all levels.