There are no easy innovation answers.

Inspiration and InnovationIn response to a recent post of mine, Tobias Stapf on the Social Innovation Europe LinkedIn networking group, pointed me to a really good report “Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail” and I really have appreciate it. I wanted to draw out some useful learning from this report and useful reminders here in this post that there is no easy answers in innovation, social or business related.

The report outlines the difficulties of enabling innovation in social sector organizations. In this review the authors undertook exploring what enables organization capacity for continuous innovation in established social sector organizations, that operate at an efficient scale, delivering products and services.

Three oversights that conflict in working in the social innovation area

First, innovation is often perceived as a development shortcut where pushing innovation is often at the expense of strengthening more routine activities, which this ‘push’ might actually destroy rather than create value.

Second, social sector innovation has little external impact to show when it is enacted in unpredictable environments. Proven innovation can often fail when transferred to a different context and there is equally an undervaluing of the positive internal learning impact that comes from these ‘failed’ innovations.

Third, the power of negative organizational factors, such as bad leadership, dysfunctional teams and overambitious production goals as examples, makes the innovation task extremely difficult to succeed in difficult social conditions

This report helped me rethink the value of incremental in social innovation

I have been constantly complaining about incremental innovation needs to become more radical, more disruptive, more breakthroughs and what this report provides is a totally different slant on incremental innovation.

Also I have talked often about the knowing of the context of innovation and this report offers a brilliant reminder of this.

Over-rating the Value of Innovation.

Value PropositionThe report offers this thought within social innovation: “Most of the value that established social sector organizations create comes from their core, routine activities perfected over time”. It is the efficiency being produced in providing standard products and services is the place that creates tremendous value, particularly in places of widespread poverty.

The organizations involved have found a working model in a particular context requires predictable, incremental improvements and lots of them to generate superior outcomes over time.

The authors cite the Aravind Eye Care Hospital for their focus on continuous improvement of practices and investing any profits in building additional capacity. It is the dedication to standardization that drives operational productivity. They spend their time eliminating variation to build constantly capacity to make an impact at an increasing scale.

The important point here is “constantly building capacity to make an impact at an increasing scale” and it is in finding the contextual linkages is where incremental has its greatest value potential.

Perhaps I push for different types of innovation within business far too hard and this observation might argue for a better viewpoint on the pursuit for incremental innovation. It brings my own pendulum into a better position perhaps of valuing incremental improvements?

A few ‘call out’ points here

  • “Unpredictable innovation activities always compete with predictable core routines for scarce resources.”
  • “Poverty-related or persistent problems may not need innovation solutions but rather committed long-term engagements that enable steady and less risky progress”.
  • “Innovation is not triggered by change but progress and impact may come from dedication and routine work” and that this can challenge the argument for more innovation.

Recognizing the value of productive innovation.

The report uses as their innovation type “productive social innovation” and argues the need to rely heavily on trial and error and constant organizational learning to make this truly productive. To yield improving results where scale is critical.

The value of learning from failed innovation.

Power of LearningIn the world of complex social issues the innovation actions are inherently unpredictable, often placed in hostile environments, where you need to understand local power structures and the many root causes of the situation you are attempting to solve through innovation.

The call out for me here are the emphasis for systematic learning and building the knowledge base provides the capacity to innovate or not. Also each situation needs significant evaluation before any adopting of practices from other places

The impatience with making fast progress

The report touches on “doing the right things” but it is within the unique dynamics and contextual factors that often innovation is prevented from happening. Innovation relies on a constellation of many enabling and contextual factors fueled by excessive optimism of the ones pushing for innovation solutions. There is so much that can stifle innovation or derail the process.

The recommendation is for greater critical diagnosis and evaluation of all the negative factors and hurdles that set about unearthing a large number of cognitive, normative and political factors. You simply can’t reply on “simple recipes” as a prevailing dogma or well-meaning recommendations, it boils down to exploring the factors, complexities, challenges and realistic time-scales involved in dealing not just with the poor but all complex social challenges.

My call out here: I find this such a timely reminder for all innovation, as business leaders constantly express their frustrations with innovation failing to deliver. The learning for me here is from the report is this increased emphasis on understanding all the negative factors that constantly block innovation and these are different from one situation to another. The environmental analysis becomes vital.

A summary within the report gave me these thoughts.

  1. It is time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process—a transition that might be less glamorous but will be more productive
  2. These recommendations should enable social sector organizations, their stakeholders, and researchers to develop analytical models and tools to unearth negative factors that prevent productive innovation.
  3. Similarly, funders who carefully think through the implications outlined in the report may find ways to escape over-supporting fashionable innovation initiatives and under-supporting promising but difficult innovation efforts, particularly those in complex environments where formulas for social progress have not yet been found.
  4. Finally, the process approach they are recommending to social innovation is an attempt to swing the pendulum back from the supply side of social innovation to the demand side of social innovation.

The authors finish with “Our hope is that an increased emphasis on innovation as a process will help avoid bad social sector investments and thwart unproductive debates about quick fixes to entrenched social problems.

This report gives a useful reminder that there is a lot to keep constantly learning about the differences within innovation

Ideas for InnovationThis report gave me a shift in insight by explaining many of the enabling factors for organizations already established, that are searching to operate at scale within specific social contexts. Incremental innovation is where they might create more social value through focusing on continuous ongoing improvements to extract learning, reinvest this into scaling improvements to then build this into further capacity.

Also we can’t take anything for granted, the context, the environment, the application of different types of innovation all are unique and simply ‘applying’ general solutions just don’t work. I have argued this consistently but this report deals in understanding the specific conditions for a ‘given’ type of innovation as being essential to be really alert too.

Again, this report is “Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail” and well worth your time to read.

Seeing innovation from a specific social perspective has some very useful learning from a business perspective. By understanding the value of incremental improvements can be more valuable in certain contextual situations than simply applying additional innovation without understanding all of the factors behind the challenges that are being tackled.

Reducing confusion, promoting diffusion for new knowledge in innovation

The third and final part of exploring knowledge and education for innovation

Part three – the value is in changing, doing and exchanging

How are we going to engage more people within the innovation process? Getting people involved is getting people “doing”. We learn far more when we are doing and gaining experience yet organizations are always in seems to me consciously or unconsciously reducing the experimental part to any persons learning.  We need to reverse this and simply encourage the exploring of new skills, gaining new experiences and probing established rules to value them but also to challenge and push them. Innovation is certainly not a friend to rules, established protocols and traditions. ‘It’ looks to attract the diverse opinions, the people willing to speak up and be heard as they often have observed and feel something can be changed and ‘itch’ for the chance to explore and learn from this.

Coupling, uncoupling and recoupling in complex systems

Innovation is a complex system where the coupling, uncoupling and re-coupling of  technology, design, product, organization, art and science, to name just a few of the parts, that need to constantly engage for good worthwhile innovation to happen, is important for us to recognize. Organizations have real difficulties with this ‘fluid need’ to allow innovation to evolve as the natural tendencies are to apply, traditional, established ways to track, to attempt to ‘file away’ something that can be related too within the experiences. This is why encouraging enquiry, by pushing experiences you ‘form’ less and ‘allow’ more to evolve before you make the judgement. Innovation needs to be allowed to stay ‘fluid’ as long as possible before the final commercial ‘freeze’ moment when all the combinations emerge as new to the world.

We also come back to the intrinsic nature of innovation; it needs different resources, skills and knowledge experiences to come into play. It is this very diversity of opinion, if allowed to engage and explore, gives us the chances of advancing innovation, of achieving a more radical solution. Perhaps we ‘promote’ incremental innovation far more than we realize because we don’t go out and engage in broader communities due to not having the time, the inclination or the understanding of its real value. Equally because we are simply not encouraged to do so, hence my argument we need a clear innovation knowledge exchange structure in place working through the absorptive capacity structure.

Openness and Convergence

Besides all the well-argued aspects of open innovation that certainly includes that famous statement that “all knowledge does not reside in one place” the more we interact, cooperate and network we share knowledge. Often the regret is the ‘brief’ is getting tighter and tighter to work from, so as to speed up discussions, the searches and ‘lock-in’ solutions the more we ignore weaker signals that are out there, hinting at even greater innovation opportunity. We chose to push past these due to this incentive, this often ‘hard’ metric that we work strictly on the ‘brief’ unless we simply trip over something so blindingly better.

Although we are certainly evolving innovation the more we open-up we do need to build in some slack time to explore, often go with a hunch and follow our noses. We are in danger of losing this opportunity in our focused intents. Open innovation will not yield all it can promise if we don’t allow for more open knowledge exploration that might be out of the ‘norm’ but still within the parameters of what we are wanting to achieve – innovation that offers compelling competitive advantage – and we often can’t achieve that if we remain blind to those ‘weak signals’ that knowledge exchange that is encouraged to recognize, value and assimilate.

The Dangers Lurking in Innovation

We all speak of enhancing innovation capabilities but it can be both competence-enhancing and competence-destroying. We build on “preferred” routes to enhance our existing capabilities as this is traditionally viewed as the way to become ‘competitive’. Actually the very opposite can and does happen. Significant breakthroughs, changes in conditions, markets or technologies leave us increasingly unprepared. More and more disruption is occurring and with this it is bringing increasing obsolescence.

We do need to acquire new skills, not ones layered on pre-conceived ideas and practices but on ones that promote new “fields of activity” we built into our thinking. We need more intensive innovation that explores at the emerging new edges of innovation management.

A great example of new fields of activity is MIX

A real valuable example of this is the work taking place within the Management Innovation  eXchange (MIX) as an open innovation project aimed at reinventing management for the 21st century. The premise: “while “modern” management is one of humankind’s most important inventions, it is now a mature technology that must be reinvented for a new age”. This is a meeting place where The MIX is designed for all those who are frustrated by the limits of our legacy management practices. It’s for all the inspired thinkers and radical doers who believe we can — and must — find alternatives to the bureaucratic and dis-empowering management practices that still rule most organizations.

Principles of the MIX – Everyone Wins When Everyone Shares

“The MIX represents a pioneering attempt to use the open innovation model to help accelerate the evolution of a critical social technology — its management. Rather than struggling in isolation to reinvent the processes and practices of management, MIX members can leverage the expertise and insights of a global community of like-minded innovators. The success of the MIX hinges on the willingness of its members to share their ideas and experiences, which depends in turn on a belief that more can be gained by sharing than by hoarding. Truth is, there’s a lot more management innovation going on in the world at large than in any particular organization. Thus the MIX gives every progressive management innovator the chance to share a little and learn a lot”.

Certainly learning favors the brave

We certainly need to educate across innovation more than ever. It needs not just greater recognition of its vital parts, it needs to be recognized as a value enhancing and organizational life-changing event we need to move towards increasingly. Innovation needs to be recognized as a clear discipline, a new expertise that is as powerful as Marketing became some decades ago.

The more we embrace change, recognize innovation demands more of our time, the more we seek out knowledge that ‘feeds’ innovation and we ‘push’ for learning far more about its impact and its complex parts, the greater chance we have of thriving in a challenging world.

The expectation ‘bar’ needs to be raised and those practicing within innovation, dealing in some of its parts do need to raise their game. Learning and Education always should start at home. The more we learn, have open interactions and form linkages the more we will be ready to advance innovation into what it must become, innovation management, recognized as a discipline and highly valued for what it contributes in wealth and growth potential.

We need to find the determination to underpin the capacity for innovation, lying within us all, and that comes from knowledge and education through collaborative learning. So what is your capacity for innovation really like?

What is your capacity for innovation really like?

In a series of articles I’d like to explore the value of knowledge and education for innovation.

Part one –  an opener to innovation change

How do we advance the learning needed for innovation? In my last article I wrote about the need to prepare ourselves for some forthcoming standards for innovation. In a number of  earlier articles, I have also written on a range of contributing factors that will advance innovation in its learning and adoption. In this series I want to go deeper – an emerging treaty for innovation advancement.

I have to be clear here, I am becoming increasingly frustrated by the seemingly lack of advancement in our understanding of innovation. Today we have a real challenge, all of us, in boosting our capacity for innovation. We need to achieve this ‘boost’ as the outcomes we can gain and are required are both economic and social in the potential value. We need to move beyond the existing and tackle the blockages to the preferred, when it comes to innovation achievements.

We face many challenges within a highly competitive world

As we seek out fresh opportunities, locally and globally, we are becoming increasingly challenged. The world is highly competitive. The key driver to meet these ‘twin’ challenges is innovation, not just for the short-term results businesses are so obsessed about but the critically important need to simply find the pathway to sustainable development through re-occurring innovation activities.

Sadly today we still marginalized innovation, we rely on incremental activities to pull us through the short-term and seemingly just keep putting off the longer-term. Much of management within organizations is mortgaging the future for today’s immediate gains. I loved this thought, although it may not contain much original thinking but it does offer what I felt reflects on this point: “we are simply kicking the innovation can down the road.”  This needs desperately changing for these economic and social reasons that are increasingly looming down that same road. Innovation needs to be better understood in what constitutes it and all the different ways it can be applied. We do need to understanding it better for its significant contribution potential to what we need to solve as social and economic problems.

 The role of education and learning for innovation

The role of people within innovation can never be overstated. They make it happen, everything else is their enablers. We do need to understand what makes innovation truly work through increasing the comprehension of “combining” its many myriad parts. Innovation skills need an innovation friendly environment and we need to reform much of our existing approaches to innovation as practiced today.

Actually we need to really speed up our reforms and we need to achieve a clear consensus of what better frameworks and activities can deliver this. Of course I would offer a shameless plug of the Executive Innovation Work Mat to be part of this, why not? I do believe it is part of the emerging solution. In my opinion the work mat helps educate, frame and to learn from in it’s combining the critical aspects, so as to improve on our existing performance and build from this.

It is increasing recognized we are all in need to follow the lifelong learning track, as organizations are increasingly insisting on increasing human performance yet constantly reducing the ‘bodies’ to assist in this. We need to keep relevant or we also become caught up in this marginalization if we don’t and have a poorer potential in our future.

Technology can’t stand alone, it needs actively working.

Organizations are presently mistaking the promise of technology alone and this will not work; it needs people, their knowledge and experiences to apply the technology. Far too often we are not finding the time as increasing complexity is layered onto dwindling human resources. We are adding more pressure into the system by taking out the very solution we need to keep in place and utilize far more, that is our people.

We are pushed to keep up and to stay relevant; we have to bury often our personal grievances because if we surface them, then we might get singled out in the next round of often mindless people cuts. We do need to reverse this board room mentality and cutting out the diversity of opinion that should be valued not thrown away. We need to make our performance potential to be stretched even more, encouraging and sustaining these different opinions. We must find ways to break into this ‘boom or bust’ mentality in board rooms by reducing the very friction that stimulates greater innovation thinking.

So how can we achieve this? Openness, trust, partnership, valuing diversity is ones that readily spring to mind here. But more importantly we need to build an innovation road-map to scope out the innovation landscape and the dynamics.

Building real education into an innovation road-map

One place to start is to design a more comprehensive road-map of innovation made up of its integral parts. The more innovation is seen and the people that enacted this are recognized, not buried in plain sight, the more it will be valued. The more we see ‘it’ and what it contributes the more people become essential to their place within this mutual value proposition we need between the organization and its employees. The overarching plank of offering education on innovation is the real ‘glue’ as this is where the value of knowledge is central, in my view, to the way forward.

Knowledge, innovation knowledge, is made up of an awful lot of different things and this is where the real education comes in, front and center in developing new practices, in training, in educating, in translating this knowledge into lasting value. The more people are valued, the more they become ‘sticky’ and the more they use their knowledge, then it becomes mutually re-enforcing as their organizations grow to appreciate their worth. We need a new social contract between organizations and the people they employ and that should be on mutual appreciation of the ability to translate knowledge into new value-generating outcomes together. The more we identify the educational parts, the more we appreciate innovations complexity but then we can equally see the rich potential in the rewards that become achievable in taking this new route. Education leads, it provides the appropriate focus and this we can derive the training and knowledge to be applied, so we can improve results and innovation outcomes.

Knowledge Exchanging is our way forward.

Organizations need to move well beyond their rather lazy reliance on best practice comparison as they actually need to explore emerging practices far more but that takes many into a different realm, the realm of increasing uncertainties, and most people and organizations are not trained for this. They anticipate risk by reducing all the variables within risk and play safe with just being incremental. Is that wrong? No, while we have our reward systems geared to short-term performance, while we measure leadership success the way we presently do, while the shareholder just expects consistent dividends as their part of the equation, and is quickly mobilized to force change if it does not meet this immediate aim we head down the wrong path. We are not sustaining, we are destroying. We need to focus on competence-enhancing not competence-destroying. To know the differences we need educating on recognizing what makes up the difference.

I can’t change our prevailing system but I can point to alternatives and suggest we have other options, pursued by the few, which are more visionary and brave and often disrupting the accepted.

We need to start by reducing ambiguity.

One real key for the few seems to be the ability to reduce ambiguity, in the concepts, in their visions, in their focus. This reducing of ambiguity improves the chances of a successful outcome that everyone involved can understand the challenges, relate to the possibilities and constantly tracking back to this vision to obtain and advance the evidence of its possibilities and potential with a meaningful contribution. They do this mostly through knowledge exchange.

I’ll discuss this and what this means in the next article, then we will delve deeper into how knowledge is ‘made up’ and can be delivered to achieve a greater openness, convergence and capacity for innovation to take hold and thrive through its mutual dependencies. I’ll cover the ‘coupling’ within the innovation system, convergence and the dangers lurking in innovation. I’ll delve even further into where absorptive capacity builds our knowledge capacity and a pathway to apply fresh learning so we can all innovate better. Finally I’ll explore further on how we need to recognize the layers within innovation that do need to shear against each other to generate positive innovation tension and ways to find the space to allow innovation to grow differently through an innovation learning process.