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.

Innovation failure starts at the top

So who do you think form the group that are the most likely candidates for innovations consistent failure? It may surprise you to know that most fingers point straight to the top of the organization as the main cause for its enduring failure.

I don’t think this is sour grapes of the people working away on innovation daily, that the ‘finger of failure’ is well and truly pointing upwards. There is more of an innovation knowledge gap at board room level or even just below this, than many can imagine, that is the plain reality. They often simply have no real clue on how innovation really works and what their essential role is in connecting all the different parts necessary to align this into the organizations overarching goals, objectives and strategies.

Let’s simply select the top common causes of innovation failure.

In a recent survey I was reading*, it provided a set of results about the common cause of innovation failure. The survey was asking participants to check all that applied and although there were 30-odd possible reasons the top ten that stand out as head and shoulders above all the others are nearly all down to the simple failure of innovation engagement in its leadership. Failure lies at the very top on why innovation fails.

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