We need the engagement platform for translating big data learning

Knowledge BuildingBig Data is knocking very loudly on our door, how are you going to let it in and manage it?

How can we liberate that creative energy we have within our organizations, how can we achieve higher engagement?

How can we learn, share and transform the knowledge that is all around us, simply flooding in? How can we translate the data flowing in with the knowledge insights and innovation outcomes expected? How are we going to unleash the creativity that goes with new knowledge?

We need to actively encourage connected minds for value creating opportunities and knowledge sharing for innovation to flow right across all the organization. All the raw data needs connected and engaged minds.

“For this we need to think about installing a modern engagement platforms that has knowledge and learning as its beating heart”

Why do we need to build this modern engagement platform? Big Data is knocking on your door.

We need increased capacity to ‘listen and capture’ understanding. We need to deploy some filtering and analytics as ‘big data’ becomes increasingly part of our organizations lives. We need to go beyond analytics.

“We urgently need a system of absorbing and translating its raw power to turn into measurable innovation outcomes”.

We need a structured system where we manage any absorption of data through its different stages of translation into valuable knowledge, to see its potential and then to realize the (new) value out of it for new innovation outcomes.

With all this new data flowing in, you need to turn it into valuable knowledge by capturing all the interactions, offer search and discovery services, organize different event and scenario management and be able to retrace the interaction history. We need to think beyond just data discovery.

“We need to equally build a knowledge sharing system and this will require as much a robust technology solution as at the raw data front end structured on a scalable learning approach”.

We need to find ways to merge data and information to turn this into ‘actionable’ knowledge and eventual valuable new innovation. We do need to think harder about building beyond analytics into these engagement platforms. It is here you actually mine the raw knowledge and transform it. We need to absorb in our organizations capabilities or we will simply overload them with just data.

We need to shift from scalable efficiency to scalable learning.

Firstly and most important for me, is our need to understand the building of learning and experiences through the Absorptive Capacity framework as I think it will have an increasingly valuable part to play in managing data, information and knowledge going forward.

A fair time back two researcher, Cohen and Levinthal (1990) pioneered the concept of absorptive capacity, further defined as the ability of an organization to identify, value, assimilate, and apply new knowledge. Since their 1990 publication, the concept has been further developed and given rise to many thousands of published papers around this subject.

The Absorptive Capacity Components

The Absorptive Capacity Components

The value of absorptive capacity is that when organizations have some prior knowledge and awareness they are more receptive to adding new understandings and new ideas. They can build better value from not just the knowledge but the structured application of it.

“As ‘big data’ grows we need to move from potential to realized outcomes”

Organizations that encourage and set about learning consciously and consistently will set about the search for new idea coming from all the incoming sources by having this already established learning structure in place. They are far more likely to better recognize new ideas that might lead to innovation.

Exploiting our learning requires framing

I would suggesat those organizations that exploit the Adaptive Capacity framework are more likely to develop deeper understanding of integrating, exploiting and experimenting with any new knowledge. Then they are in that ‘better’ shape to set about placing the data and knowledge gained into a new setting, framing new concepts or hypothesis, to push this knowledge forward into new innovation.

“We need a structure were we are constantly, consciously advancing learning, extracting its value, turning this into valuable new potential and successful innovation outcomes.”

Adoption Capacity 1
This gaining of continuous knowledge encourages constant learning and this has a positive feedback cycle as it builds the capacities and capabilities for future innovation activity for the increased potential for new value.

Absorptive capacity, once recognized and established as a system, promotes the search for new knowledge that greatly increases the capacity to make the necessary new connections for new innovation to happen.

The ability within our knowledge gathering needs a continuous focus and methodology of approach.

For this to happen, it does need continuous focus, we need to build greater absorption capacity. If organizations take the alternative route of wanting to squeeze every last drop out of the existing innovation activity or research department, organizations over time develop as bad learners, they begin to ignore, to assume they have the knowledge and get fixed in their mind sets. They totally rely on data and don’t apply their knowledge and they fail to translate this into meaningful outcomes.

Those that fail to seek out and absorb, will certainly tend to reject faster and increasingly adopt the “not invented here” syndrome. That can only last for a limited time before ‘innovation decay’ and ‘data overload’ does sets in, people become frustrated and finally give up and leave, and when they do just remember all their knowledge goes with them also.

“There is a real risk that all the incoming data can be totally overwhelming, we need to structure a learning system to absorb, exploit and translate for measurable innovation outcomes”

Managing new innovation outcomes we need to apply absorptive capacity as a learning framework

We certainly understand that today innovation is not confined within the walls of one particular company. The world ‘absorbs’ more innovation than we can turn into greater value but we need to attempt to capture this and see if and where its value might lie.

If we agree that most innovations happen outside often self-imposed boundaries then we have to extend outside all our existing boundaries and go beyond. We have to open up our organizations and collective minds to draw in the knowledge in so as to allow it to reside, circulate and be translated into new forms of understanding.

Absorptive capacities give us the system on which we can encourage the gathering, understanding and translation of knowledge. It underpins engagement and also helps manage the ‘raw knowledge data’ that needs transforming. We all need to be able to have ‘syncing’ capabilities of learning.

We need a system to capture and allow knowledge to flow, and a strong absorptive capacity has three main outputs which result from the flow of external or distributed knowledge that is allowed to flow internally.

“With the creation of new knowledge and insights, these can create new innovation that then leads to new economic and social value”

Achieving a clear engagement platform for all to gain from

So in our need to achieve a greater engagement from everyone within our organizations we need to recognize the importance of having a ‘modern’ engagement platform available, a central place for scalable learning to take place so we can structure the new knowledge and insights coming into the organization.

As we increasingly need to engage, where outside knowledge combines with our internal understanding and needs, then we do need to think about scalable learning to anchor and then diffuse new knowledge into potentially more valuable innovation outcomes that are measurable and linked back through the learning cycle.

 

Building Collective Agility for Innovation

Collective Agility PostAgility is important to me. For me, agility and innovation have needed to always go together. I named my company Agility Innovation Specialists and at its core, we state that the value of this focus can offer a real “intensity in innovation” that we believe reflects today’s world of need.

We encourage you to disrupt the accepted, to constantly challenge the current ways and push into uncomfortable territory. We suggest you seek out customer’s unmet needs, unexplored opportunities to give a new diversity to any thinking, and then we set about accelerating these ideas to fruition. Those all need abundant and constant agility.

Many of our business organizations continue to struggle with innovation and how to make it repeatable, sustaining and transformational. Often, it seems, the more large organizations attempt to become ‘agile’ the more they seem to achieve the very opposite, of rigidity.

Finding solutions to building agility is part of the necessary answer to achieving greater innovation solutions.

Our aim is to strengthen the core by building in increasing ‘waves’ of agility within your business and enable a stronger set of sustaining innovation outcomes. This comes over time, from this need to have agility, flexibility, an open enquiring mind that looks to experiment and explore, making for an agile innovator and this needs diffusion across the entire organization and that does take time. I’m always looking to explore agility and recently came across the concept of “collective agility”

Then we have collective agility

I have been reading a good academic paper recently, one that I came across in my Big Data and Cloud research I have been undertaking. The paper is called “Collective Agility, Paradox and Organisational Improvisation” by Yingqin Zheng, Will Venters and Tony Cornford, found on the London School of Economics site, under the department of Management.

Their point gained from studying GridPP and its part in the Large Hadron Collider Computing Grid (LHC) where they observed a collective, agile and distributed performance rather than seeing ‘agility’ as small-group and deliberate systems development practices often associated with ‘agile’.

It got me curious. Here is my summary of their paper. It certainly offers some pointers to managing in more agile ways in complex and often disparate organization.

Collective agility is focused on the same objective: shared.

In terms of business, it means the mission is shared by all and this mobilizes each person in ways that I feel are tying agility to innovation in new ways, well for me anyway.

It is providing an environment where “unintended consequences” emerge, many positive, others less so, where random thoughts and ideas collide and through these exchanges within the community they form a “collective mindfulness” to solve these complex challenges.

Collective agility seems to require loose coupling, not heavy structures or rules, encouraging a culture of improvisation and constant ‘tinkering’ that comes from not just intelligence, trust and pragmatism but by the knowledge that lies within the community.

Collective agility needs to have minimal structure, flexible planning, extensive communication and social bonding, all working towards this coherent, facilitated and growing feeling of making good sense (sense-making) through this coordinated but distributed network.

It is totally reliant on the interactions and attention to coordination to achieve this ‘collective mindfulness’

The big “ah-huh” for me

Collective agility is about accepting what is unpredictable and uncontrollable yet working within given boundaries, actively working upon seeking out an improving performance and capability, to still perform in this circumstances of uncertainty.

Now for me, many organizations are grappling with uncertainty, volatility and unpredictable situations and resort to trying to master them in rigorous, highly disciplined ways.

This ‘collective agility’ is suggesting we go the other way, we let go, hang loose but stay collectively focused by just reacting in agile ways. Does that raise some different thinking for you, it does for me.

We are seeking out improved performance but in really agile ways across a distributed community or network. Large organizations today are regretfully still tackling thorny problems in ‘given silo’s’ and this ‘collective agility’ thinking might open up our ideas about collaborating and co-creating in different ways.

It is in the combining of performances, that tackle issues in improvised ways but within a trusted and pragmatic way. It creative productive tensions, dynamics and motivating challenges and the group feel that ‘capacity for action’, motivated to combine, share and explore together to solve the problem.

Rules, structures and organized events often inhibit and feel contrived, the idea behind ‘collective agility’ is it is more natural even within organization with established routines and strong cultures as they can bind, provide collective strength, as well as inhibit. It is seeking out the minimal structures, releasing the flexibility and bonding that can come from these routines and stronger cultures.

The when, what, who, where and how collective agility is performed

According to the authors, agility can be learnt through ‘learned improvisation’ where some established tools are dropped or removed and some ‘surprise, risk and wonder’ are allowed into the exchanges.

The atmosphere of experimentation, trust, shared goals and emotional bonds provide for confidence to grow, in sharing and learning from made mistakes, as it contributes to the ‘higher’ cause of what the community is tackling within these tough problems.

The group grows in its ‘sense of pride’ in working and searching for a higher cause and even willing to undertake unpopular tasks to move exchanges along. The motivation grows by this ‘collective agility’.

We often recognize improvisation and agility is more easily performed in small groups, jazz improvisation is often used to relate to this agility. The key is often the ambience and this can equally come from building out bigger communities to perform and exchange (notes)

The final thought is agility requires a mental attitude “to let go of control” to interact, to improvise but to seek to keep that sense of cohesiveness of constantly wanting to work things out, working consciously to keep moving forward towards the higher task.

Art and science fuse.

The authors suggest science becomes more like an art- visionary, experiential, passionate, agile and emergent. I’ve written about art and science before, see here “Renaissance comes from combining art and science for innovation“, so I can relate to this need to bring these two often separate practices into one again.

As I was working through this paper, replaying the conceptualization of ‘collective agility’, I liked the comment within the paper “agility for us is an expression of what people do or achieve, rather than what they might do or capabilities they hold

Then another important part of this paper is managing the Paradoxes

They also bring out Paradoxes and provide a helpful table of these seemingly conflicting ideas or paradoxes to build ‘collective agility’ in understanding. These are based on:

1) The paradoxes of learning: “as we struggle between the comfort of the past and the uncertainty of the future which are fundamental to the process of innovation, transformation and sense making”. Learned improvisation and reflective spontaneity.
2) The paradoxes of organising: “reflecting tensions between control and flexibility, formal and informal, integrated and differentiation denoting an ongoing process of striving for equilibrium of often opposing forces”. Planned agility and structured chaos.
3) The paradoxes of belonging: “we strive for both self-expression and collective affiliation”…but also being “self-driven, intelligent and creative people, yet they also have an acute appreciation that success relies on collaborative effort”. Collective individuality and anxious confidence.

They finish within the paper offering a useful tables highlighting some key organizational practices that help to make this collective agility work through these paradoxes.

We are constantly searching for agility to perform innovation

Agility is linked to change. Change is constantly throwing obstacles in our way. We are urged to be nimble, to react quickly, and to tackle challenges in new ways. Developing agility allows us to be in a constant ‘state’ of recognizing nothing is seemingly staying the same.

If we are feeling those around us, are all working towards the same goals, then we feel less inhibited, we may not like change but we gradually accept it. If others are reinforcing the necessary change though this ‘collective agility’ it can become a source of new hope, new discoveries, and a place for opportunity, with real excitement, full of possibilities

Gaining that critical sense of collective identity missing from many in our organizations.

By knowing “we” are collectively all working towards the same purpose, constantly having the progress mutually reinforced, allowing for clear debate but being pushed and moving forward, being allowed to freely exchange within a common purpose in ‘collective’ ways, then we are certainly are moving towards a more fluid, organizational agility.

This ‘collective agility’ might alter the ways we can tackle tough problems and work in volatile environments, that then can yield in collaborative ways, solutions that are more radical and breakthrough in innovation, something we should all be striving to achieve.

Certainly this does offer some interesting thoughts to take collaboration and co-creation further through this collective agility concept of greater improvising.

Learning favours the brave

Knowledge and learning 4The challenges we are facing today seem to be coming faster at us, more complex to decipher and then re-evaluate how we should respond. To achieve faster response we certainly need to educate the organization more than ever.

We need to absorb more, we need to encourage learning more especially to pursue innovation. We need to actively set up learning ways within our organizations to establish their abilities to recognize the value of new, external information (knowledge), to assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends.

Innovation within the organization needs not just greater recognition of its vital parts, but also of its status as a value enhancing and organizational life-changing event that we need to move towards increasingly in more organized ways. Innovation needs to be recognized as a clear discipline, a new expertise that is as powerful as Marketing became some decades ago.

Seeking out knowledge that feeds our innovations

Knowledge and learning 3The more we embrace change and recognize innovation demands more of our time, the more we seek out knowledge that ‘feeds’ innovation. And the more we ‘push’ for learning, the greater chance we have of thriving in a challenging world.

The expectation ‘bar’ needs to be raised from those practicing innovation, I feel the constant need is for those working within innovation they have this real need to raise their game significantly. Innovation needs organizing but it also needs a better understanding of its contributing parts.

Learning and Education should always start at home.

The earlier we learn, have open interactions and form linkages, the more we will be ready to advance innovation into what it must become: a discipline highly valued for what it contributes with in terms of 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 within your organization? Is the learning required for innovation set up in structured ways or left to individual learning and experimentation?

Do either structured or informal ways feed back into the organizational learning system to benefit others? Or is the knowledge gained just left ‘resident’ in the person, not being put to that greater use?

Knowledge exchange is the way forward but we need to avoid the easy paths.

Knowledge and learning 2Organizations need to move well beyond their lazy reliance on best practice comparison and they need to find better ways to explore emerging practices. But that takes many into the realm of increasing uncertainties, and most people and organizations are not trained for this exploration and experimentation.

It is easy to copy but we often fail to recognize all the contextual factors that went into making it that one specific organizations good practice, and I guarantee these are not yours!

Best practice has their comparable uses but it is your focusing on the good and emerging practices within your own organization is the area to focus, for learning and wanting to improve into those that make your practices really work. Then applying, experimenting and learning from novel practices that provide growing confidence in creative thinking.

Also give some thought for next practice, those practices that prompt reinvention. They start such totally fresh thinking, they challenge existing paradigms and move you towards considering new business models.

Organizations constantly anticipate risk by reducing all the variables within risk and play safe with just being incremental. Is that wrong? No, as long as we have our reward systems geared to short-term performance, while we measure leadership success the way we presently do, and 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 our organization and we are not advancing ourselves either, we are destroying much in our current approaches. We do need to focus more on the competence-enhancing not competence-destroying aspects.

We need to re-balance the “risk and opportunity” to push our use of new knowledge into fresh innovation that ‘advances’ on the existing. To recognize the difference we need to encourage knowledge to be ‘freely’ exchanged, and then provide the environment to encourage a re-educating on ‘seeing and exploring’ new possibilities that allow us to grow.

Shifting the knowledge needle takes real commitment

Knowledge and learning 1Can we recognize that choosing the tougher pathway of building our own distinct capabilities, learning block by learning block, is the right one to follow. This allows us to build capacities that are ours, seeking out the knowledge to build the absorptive capacity that acquire, assimilate, transform and exploit, so as to give us greater chances of finding new innovation that is valued and allows us all to grow and gain from this dedicated learning.

I can’t change our prevailing system but I can point to alternatives and suggest we have other options, ones pursued by the few, which are more visionary and brave and often disrupting the accepted. These are building on novel and unique practices, extracted not from others best practices but from emerging practices learn by deliberate design and our own personal experiences, formed within our organizations unique view of the ‘take of and place in’ the world.

Finding our own way relies mostly on us to find the answers. We grow by seeking out knowledge as it feeds our minds to find our unique ways to contribute and share.

Absorptive Capacity, Knowledge Management and Innovation

Source : Haas Leadership Initiative

Let’s start with some defining statements. Innovation is totally dependent on becoming aware of external ideas and innovations. We can ‘fall over these’ or we can find ideas or concepts through explicit search. Then to translate these and turn them into something new and different we need to have established some sort of diffusion and dissemination processes. Having this established as a sustaining system provides an essential source to building organizations capabilities and competencies.

The more we work external knowledge the more we potentially enhance and multiply its value from a single idea into the potentials for multiple innovations. Having a systematic framework can be dramatic for generating new knowledge and gathering ideas for new innovation potential.

Throughout this post I’ll link into previous posts that you might like to explore but this is not necessary.

The issue is how we set about adopting and adapting new knowledge.

Each organization we work within collects its knowledge in different ways. Each has special characteristics, systems and ways to set about doing this. Often finding the knowledge is highly random. Many cases the knowledge we are searching for already resides in the organization, sometimes when we go outside we find one of the paths of this knowledge actually leads back inside our own organization. When this happens it leaves us puzzled on how and why this happens.

A long time back two researcher, Cohen and Levinthal (1990) pioneered the concept of absorptive capacity, further defined as the ability of an organization to identify, value, assimilate, and apply new knowledge. Since their 1990 publication, the concept has been further developed and given rise to many thousands of published papers around this subject.

Adoptive Capoacity Steps 1 The value of absorptive capacity is that when organizations have some prior knowledge they are more receptive to adding new understandings and new ideas.

Organizations that encourage and set about learning consciously set about the search for new ideas and by having this already established ‘learning’ are far better at recognizing new ideas that might lead to innovation.

These organizations develop deeper understanding of integrating and experimenting this new knowledge and set about placing it in a new setting, concept or hypothesis, to push this knowledge forward into new innovation. They are consciously advancing learning.

This gaining of continuous knowledge encourages constant learning and this has a positive feedback cycle as it builds the capacities and capabilities for future innovation activity. Absorptive capacity, once recognized and established as a system promotes the search for new knowledge that greatly increases the capacity to make the necessary new connections for new innovation to happen.

For this to happen, it does need continuous focus. If organizations take the alternative route of wanting to squeeze every last drop out of the existing innovation activity or research department, organizations over time develop as bad learners, they begin to ignore, to assume they have the knowledge and get fixed in their mind sets. They fail to absorb, they tend to reject and take on increasingly that “not invented here” syndrome. That can only last for a limited time before ‘innovation decay’ sets in, people leave and the knowledge often goes with them also.

The problem also can lie in too much knowledge

The other vital part of understanding absorptive capacity is its terrific benefits for diffusion and dissemination of ideas. As the knowledge we glean from outside comes inside it can confront, it can challenge the “what we know”. It is at these times we must stop the initial reaction of “let’s reject this” and allow time for a deeper evaluation, making sense from this different perspective. Looking through alternative lenses helps here.

Organizations are always in a hurry. They design innovation pipelines to get narrower and narrower. They want to quickly dismiss ideas that don’t fit in their norm, the system is poorly equipped to handle different, more challenging thinking, yet this is the very place radical, breakthrough and disruptive innovation ‘sits’. Organizations must find better ways to resist allowing knowledge pathways to become narrower before the knowledge, insights and potential connections have been well absorbed.

Allowing a greater access to new sources of knowledge, discussing emerging innovation concepts by diffusing the understanding does allows for increasing those ‘real’ connections where something really different beyond the existing can be shared as emerging.

It is allowing the absorptive capacities to fully work through the knowledge gained, to improve your capacities. Providing innovation and your ideas and concepts extended time, you can provide for different connection points for exploiting innovation impact even more. If you allow for this additional time to explore and discuss specifically in the search for those more radical connections and outcomes, you have the potential for far more.

We do need to allow knowledge inside our organizations to flow more openly

Allowing innovation inWe need to stop the ‘cognitive blinders’ that constraints the diversity of opinion by allowing concepts or knowledge to be more broadly seen and worked upon, shared more openly. Make innovation far more open inside the organization as well as outside. Practice a more ‘holistic’ open innovation is highly valuable for pushing beyond the current incremental approaches, simply because knowledge is only residing with a few chosen people. We do need to avoid all the cognitive traps around.

Let’s really adopt open innovation, internally as well as externally. It is allowing not just new knowledge in but to allow this new knowledge to flow and be absorbed and then can be better translated into new application or worth. There are significant roadblocks within open innovation today that need resolution.

The art of harnessing knowledge lies in our intellectual capital

When we are chasing after new growth we do need to employ all our capitals. Today the dominant capital is financial, it rules the others and that stifles knowledge, innovation and the potential for being different. Financial capital tends to be based on past numbers or immediate concerns, it struggles with the future. It wants to reduce time, risk, inefficiencies and replace this with always improving the rate of return on the financial capital.

We need to think about a better way to judge ‘rate of return’ and that should be on recognizing the critical importance of the other capitals, those that make up the intellectual capitals. Broadly these fall into human, structural and relationships. They are the capitals that make up the value and provide the new generating value that are embedded in the personnel, organizational routines, and network relationships. They provide fresh capital through innovation and strategic renewal.

There is an incredible set of connections between all the parts of intellectual capital, absorptive capacity and knowledge that make for new innovation and give us the real chance of value creation. I’ll discuss this set of connections further in a subsequent post.

Thankfully some organizations are becoming enlightened

Knowledge and Innovation are engaged at the ‘hip’, they are inseparable. To separate them both would die, one feeds the other. It is through the application of approaching them through a system like absorptive capacity you can generate the flows needed to keep our search for new ideas stimulated, our innovations pushing forward and allowing others to benefit and build on this knowledge further.

If you have not considered the place for absorptive capacity and its value, it is high time you did. It might be your missing link.

Seeking a new middle management’s innovation perspective

It is often claimed that the middle manager seems to the ones holding back innovation. I tend to subscribe to this as well although I feel the circumstances and ‘blame’ might lie elsewhere, more than likely further up the organization. Irrespective of where the culpability lies we do need to change this perception through altering the current dynamics.

The general argument goes that the middle manager is so pressured to focus on the delivery of short-term results that all their efforts are centred far more on delivering ‘just’ an effective organization, that drives out any excess or leeway, reduces variation, constantly dampening down potential risk and uncertainty that is in direct conflict with what innovation required.

By the middle managers obsession with constantly chasing efficiencies alone, there is little ‘slack’ for innovation and new learning. Their measurement is often based on this efficiency and effectiveness emphasis and not on generating innovation.

Resources are often in conflict when it comes to innovation. They are being stretched far more, pushed hard on being involved in multiple tasks and with the prevailing mentality to keep their focus on generating the immediate short-term results. This not only squashes out opportunity to explore, it is actually squeezing the middle managers ability to build a more flexible, responsive organization. Innovation is in direct ‘tension’ with much that is being undertaken at middle management level.

This does result in working towards a well-tuned and efficient operating system but it seems one that is not capable to allow innovation to move from a collection of ad hoc activities into one that builds progressively that more sustaining innovation structure, establishing a deepening set of capabilities that this requires.

Although organizations claim to be innovative often the very people that we are expecting to manage the ‘dynamics of innovation’ within organizations, the Middle Managers, are seeking the very opposite, doing everything possible to keep the environment as stable and consistent as it can be. They are taking away the ‘vital essences’ that innovation needs – a fluid, agile, open, diverse and flexible environment and putting consistent constraints and barriers in the way in their pursuit of efficiency and predictable effectiveness.

So how can this change? How can we move the needle and tilt it more towards innovation becoming more central without inflicting a more radical overhaul, one that is unlikely to happen in most existing organizations.

Let’s turn the existing core competencies needed for middle managers on their head and offer a new mix of primary, critical and core capabilities that are the measuring point for the MM’s new core competency set that provides for a clearer  innovation focus as essential to master.

1.       Core competences need to be changed – we should flip the requirements

We all recognize that the dedicated middle manager holds the organization together. They are often the glue that connects the organization with the leadership and enable the ‘forces’ to flow, yet do they allow this for innovation?  In traditional Chinese culture qì (also chi or ch’i) is an active principle forming part of any living thing. Qi is frequently translated as “life energy”, “life force”, or the energy flow “and innovation is the same vital need within organizations.

Let’s flip the thinking

Flipping the thinking on capabilities around for the Middle Manager

Flipping the thinking on capabilities around for the Middle Manager

  • ·         Primary becomes the base not the pinnacle. What they do in efficiency and effectiveness remains as their primary capability – you don’t alter this, it is too engrained. This can only change over time and through their inner awareness and recognition that innovation needs to be embedded, alongside the existing ‘fixation’ on efficiency and effectiveness. Don’t try to radically change, make progressive step changes. Efficiency and effectiveness clearly remains the inventory repertoire of solid capabilities so as you set about to build a new platform, based on innovation, it layers and interlocks
  • ·         You target selected critical capabilities to learn and explore. You provide the MM a clarity of the new and emerging critical capabilities they need to build up. These are the capabilities that will provide the greatest impact for competitive advantage, not internal but external in all its orientation.
  • ·         At the top of the pyramid is the core capabilities they need to have. This cluster of capabilities is centred on the critical capabilities to make innovation main stream, to be a daily part of their thinking, their make-up, their intent to ensure happens. These differ according to the role, area of focus and contribution.

2.  We need to focus the middle manager on different learning concepts

Peter Senge and his learning organisation concept is helpful in establishing an innovation learning organization. His five main characteristics are system thinking, personal mastery, mental models, a shared vision and team learning. In summary these are:

Systems thinking – the idea would be to introduce a distinct innovation system thinking approach that needs to be in place within their organization. Overtime it will help measure the performance of the organization as a whole, and of its various components, and the organization shifts in the very ground for middle managers has to manage within.

 Personal mastery - the commitment by an individual to the process of learning is known as personal mastery, so it is therefore important to develop a culture where personal mastery is practised in daily life, based on clear innovation capabilities and capacities needed to be practised.

Mental models – the assumptions held by individuals and organizations are called mental models and these are seemingly, stuck more in the efficiency and effectiveness ones at present. To become a learning organization, these models must be challenged.

Shared vision - the creation and constant development of a shared vision on innovation and its place within the organisations activities, to make it a core and so create that essential common identity and sense of purpose. This sharing and identity gives real focus and energy for learning and exploring what ‘makes up’ innovation.

 Team learning – the accumulation of individual learning constitutes the last aspect, into team learning. The value of the middle manager in bringing people and their contributions together is vital, this is done in innovation efficient and effective ways through increasing experimentation and shared learning to explore and understand the aspects that work and can be honed more.

The emphasis in learning needs a more radical shift in encouraging boundary crossing and openness and seeking out a more networked, relationship environment that draws in increasing external perspectives to compliment the internal knowledge already built up.

3. Then we need to work the innovation learning ‘muscles’ through the three learning loops

Reinforcing loops 1

Reinforcing loops to strengthen the innovation change management  (Peter Senge)

So the middle manager has to begin to think through a new agenda for innovation change and the organization has to ‘fully’ provide the necessary support and structure for them to move towards this (radical) change in their managing within the middle.

The value is the middle becomes our connector for innovation

Middle managers tasks should increasingly become more about performing the role of connectors and facilitators, not the guardians and gatekeepers for the decision makers.  Their work should include the encouragement that everyone is engaged in innovation work, for each person to constantly go back and check against this integrated innovation framework to work out their place to relate to this and become aligned.

The middle manager carries through connection and identification. Making sure everyone has a ‘sight-line’ and identification into their contribution for any organizational innovation framework so they stay well-connected and engaged.

Communication and relationships becomes the key. We need to find that new high ground for middle managers to be seen as the real connectors and enablers and not the current view as more often than not the blockers on innovation.

All we need to do is convince the top they need to provide the Innovation framework for this to work and that can come through the form of the Executive Innovation Work Mat no less.

Twenty critical questions to be resolved for succeeding in innovation

Some time back I compiled a list of those critical areas that I felt need addressing for innovation to have a chance of success. Going through them again today and in light of different insights picked up on the way, I added more of a descriptor to each. I certainly think these reflect the struggles within innovation that need working upon constantly, so it has a better chance to succeed.

This revised thinking I feel has upgraded my own focal points as areas I will be exploring even further in my work in the period ahead.

What do you think? Do you think the list is missing something?

My upgraded thinking on the 20 top innovation aspects to master and resolve.

1. There seems so much ongoing difficulty to identify the real opportunities for innovation as there is often no structured approach to this, or even worse a poor recognition of any well formulated strategy, so allowing so many opportunities to fall through the gaps.

2.   Not generating and managing ideas that deliver real growth, mostly due to a lack of any effective decision-making process, organised governance and structure to manage this.

3.   A on-going failure in not effectively seeking out external insights in clear ways and lacking a capturing structure to achieve this, so simply restricting the real awareness of the external environment to the necessary person internally within the organization.

4.   The inability to draw down from a diverse set of networks, partners, systems and people and then connecting them in a ecosystem to acquire, transform or exploit this new knowledge for new innovation.

5.   Not setting the appropriate focus on innovation activities for value creation and making those critical points explicit enough within and across the organization, so leaving it too open to personal interpretation and fuzzyness, resulting in often disappointing end results.

6.   Not having a clear alignment to the Corporate Strategy for innovation, often missing the connections between formal and informal mechanisms needed for managing innovation.

7.   Having poor implementation that fails expectations as the ‘need’ of the end result was left far too vague or compromised somewhere between discovery and delivery.(see 5 also)

8.   Failing to recognize and build innovation capabilities across the organisation that deliver the appropriate mix of skills and experience by often not appreciating the significant differences between the types of innovation necessary and their unique characteristics to execute through these.

9.   Building the competencies to further strengthen change is based far to much on existing organizational cultures that focus on effectiveness and efficiency, failing to recognize this is often in conflict with innovation, that is requiring a far more open ended, adaptive approach.

10. Having different expectations and behaviours across the organisation, divergent opinions and significant disconnects of self-interest and petty politics that override innovation intent.

11. Continually having changing priorities and conflicting responsibilities by not successfully managing the conflict between short and long term needs that are required to be managed in a more structured, thoughtful way.

12. A lack of concerted effort to encourage collaboration across and outside the organization I would suggest is limiting organization design in flows and effectiveness for innovation success.

13. Diverse systems that restrict the flow of knowledge sharing and don’t capture and share those aspects that would, if overcome, would trigger fresh insight and growing awareness of valuable alternatives.

14. Inadequate understanding of consumer and customer needs as the front line engagement process is not alert enough or trained to discover these, or often don’t have a system in place to report these back in the knowledge and incentive that these are seen as important by the customer.

15. Localised innovation that does not engage the whole organisation and continues on a silo basis, pushed by local managers as their pet projects, starving more critical ones and not being well picked up due to a lack of a comprehensive innovation portfolio management system.

16. Largely being reactive to competition and not being proactive, due to this constant struggle to fully understand the external environment and failing to anticipate those future trends and where they fit in their implications for the organization and its innovation focus.

17. Lacking a leadership perspective of the “ideal” culture and climate to inspire innovation and really appreciating what real differences do motivate people at the different levels for them to participate and actively engage in innovation activity or simply not.

18. Not having enough time, resource and resolve to grow innovation activity, as innovation and its appropriate management has not been fully designated as a clear function, with designated accountability, well resourced and integrated within and across the organization.

19. Failure to exploit the know-how and IP within the organisation and explore its potential with partners, so its potential can be fully exploited and commercialised instead of often just left ‘gathering dust’ as simply a protected patent not being exploited.

20. No clear and distinct measures and metrics to drive the innovation process effectively across the organisation and for the individual to relate to, that aligns the efforts with promoting and exploiting innovation as part of everyone’s responsibility.

The implication of this list or even simply parts of it

The effective tasking of innovation activities today cannot be left to chance; it has to be designed into the organization from top to bottom. By not having designated people fully involved and accountable for innovation is likely to inhibit growth. Having a well designed innovation structure and governance is essential but still not well understood

Having an honest conversation at board level is a good starting point.

Reflecting on this twenty points alone and being open enough in addressing them can make a dramatic difference between success and ongoing disappointment. Leaders or those tasked with innovation need to have this honest conversation, if they come up short then they need to ‘reach out’ and seek fresh external advice on how to resolve these gaps so as they can quickly understand their gaps.

Gaining a deeper understanding does make a real difference

I would argue executives should not be afraid to ask. Having a deeper understanding can often come from a dedicated focus often not possible within the confines of one organization. The external advice offered can help move them towards a more successful innovation management structure to succeed in those innovation efforts and go closer to match their desires and growth goals from innovation. Sometimes it is well worth reaching out for fresh perspectives and even, a dose of reality.

A No Better Moment

When you have some sun on your back after a long period of those winter months, you just always begin to feel life is so much better going forward. Life seems to reawaken within. I often wish we could capture the ‘sense’ of spring and what it promises to bring from this change of season. Those of us who witness the change of seasons are so lucky.

I’ve also been reminded recentlyabout the phrase offered by a number of leaders to explain a positive encouraging shift after a tough time, it goes like this: “we do see some green shoots that are offering some early signs of growth and recovery.”

Spring captures that growth moment. It is often talking to us of renewal. Innovation needs that capturing opportunity as well.

Freezing the moment to listen

Tell me why are we so notoriously bad at not learning from our past downturns? We still fail to talk to each other, to spend the time to reflect, to learn, to adjust, and too observe. So much is “brushed under the carpet.”

We still can’t find a common language of understanding within organizations, or dealing across organizations. We just simply end up spending a ridiculously large part of our time “talking at each other, or across each other” We lose so much time, energy and opportunity.

We are simply losing so much time in the innovation debates

Innovation is challenging, it is complex, yet we chose to ignore so much of what is available to us to ‘spot’ new possibilities, resolve those unmet needs or improve on what is offered to help in our daily needs.

There is no better moment than to stop and rediscover how to listen, to truly listen. Just stop for one minute. Innovation is calling for a common language, a common understanding yet all I hear is the consistent throb of different views, making it difficult to interpret what is right, what is wrong.

With there being so much conflicting advice being offered in this innovation space we ‘freeze’; regretfully not for the right reason, to enjoy the moment, to learn from it, to take something positive away to improve our lives but more than often we become even more unsure and stop listening. We shut out many of the sounds because they conflict, they are jarring and not as they should be, in harmony.

The search for a common language

I’ve argued, as have others, we need to find a common language for innovation. Alexander Osterwalder in his opening to his concept of the Business Model Canvas always starts by posing the question on Business Models “We lack a common language” as everyone see’s the business model differently, if at all. The brilliance within his canvas approach is that it offers a unique way to bring everyone onto the same page. We need to do this across more of innovation’s activities- to bring everyone on the same page.

I see the canvas approach taking hold in many different ways. I’ve read about the Enterprise Canvas, the Business Architecture Canvas, the Lean Canvas, and recently the Business Case Canvas.

I watch with growing interest the approach taken by Paidi O’Reilly, along with some of his colleagues in Ireland, who are presently working on the development of their view of an Innovation modelling software tool. It offers up at its heart, an Innovation Model Canvas, for moving from generation to commercialization.

I’d come up one level on what I’ve seen and read of Paidi’s work and argue we need an Innovation Structure Canvas as well. One that articulates the innovation environment we would wish to operate within. Something that ‘frame’s’ innovation from that firms perspective so we can keep going back to this overarching ‘innovation canvas’ to confirm and test where we are going to see if we are achieving the climate and environment we agreed .

We also need to combine forces

If we could learn to capture,  articulate and explore what we want to achieve on this “Innovation Structure Canvas” we can really begin to talk to others in a shared language. Open innovation, collaborative innovation is fraught with misunderstanding. Whenever we engage with others we must work hard at overcoming differences of opinion, if we want to engage them in our venture.

Structuring our conversations firstly around this canvas perhaps is a good way to test and validate what is in there, shown on this one page canvas so we can gain far more quickly from the other person’s reaction in smarter ways. They can identify or challenge what we want to achieve and we all can achieve and go to a deeper level of conversation by sharing this common starting point.

Steve Blank argues we all need to get out of the office more and test our hypothesis. Innovation is uncertain, it is often made up of guesses and hunches, of sparks of ideas and the more we can ‘show’ its potential value, the more others can relate and improve on that concept. Steve has a customer development process based on two distinct parts- search and execution.Creating a right environment for innovation is made up of a constant ongoing search and execution also.

Business the world over is in search of growth, more today than for a long time. We are ‘emerging’ from a severe downturn, a shock to the world’s economies and one thing recently struck me as a gap to fill, to build a bridge across a divide.

Seeking each other out

Large organizations are desperately searching for ways to change, to adapt to the new circumstances and challenges happening. The problem for many is they simply don’t know how too, the more they try, the more it seems complex. They often lack the real courage to rip up the existing business model and all that supports it. They presently are searching for the how too so as to navigate in these choppy waters of change.

Small organizations are seemingly more nimble, less burdened with heritage, legacy, superstructures that weigh you down and they can see so many breaking opportunities on where change is happening. They are closer to the ground from ‘seeing it’ to ‘reacting to it’ quickly but so often get held back for the lack of the very resources large organizations have, often in abundance, to mobilize and capitalize once they are set on a course.

Now is a good time for both large and small to find their ‘complementaries’, to recognize that have value even more to collaborate together. The large organization might have to moderate it ‘predatory’ behaviour though, the small organization’s fear of ‘David and Goliath’ and worried their ‘single shot’ is not going to make the mark does need careful and consideration in managing.

They both need to find new ways to combine, so the ones that have resources work with the ones that have the ‘sharper’ pulse of seeing opportunity, and this combination of ‘creative juices’ and ‘appropriate resource and energy’ are combined for mutual gain far more in collaborative, mutually sharing ways. Not in the old ways of simply ‘acquisition’ that so often tended to destroy the very entrepreneurial essence that gave the success to the venture.

The back of a napkin

Great ideas are often captured on a napkin, on one page. We need to find ways where that initial capture of a great idea, of a real reason for instance on why ‘we’ should combine forces, needs some capturing mechanism.  The concept of the one page canvas can be the place to paint our vision but in a structured way and the initial meeting place for innovation to come alive for all those that choose to go there.

A road map that ‘speaks’ of growth, of differentiation, of operational and execution excellence and customer potential/ acceptance as the necessary building blocks, of how to achieve it, so others can ‘see it’, challenge or improve upon it because they are “speaking the same language.”

By the way check this out: the Napkin Academy on http://bit.ly/HrYhKX

The pressing need is in finding a different ways to talk a common language.

If we do want to move beyond our past ways to manage, top down, bottom up, we need to engage far more people, across a far more diverse marketplace of interested parties. We need to draw them in, to seek their participatation and understanding, within our innovation canvas design, so we are all on this same page.

We might want to extend the concept of the canvas across business in even more novel designs than the Business model canvas so we can quickly sketch, to discuss and to listen to all those who chose to want to engage, who equally want to share and seek out fresh opportunity.

Innovation might be made of many things intangible but it can be captured. We need to allow it to be seen, just like those first ‘green shoots’, so it can be nurtured, improved upon and fully shared in common understanding.

Just like spring, we need to ‘trigger all our senses’ for  the need to grow, to talk to each other in a common language and appreciate how we are going to ‘set about’ innovation by achieving this new growth that can only be really achieved in a different way of shared understanding.