The weak influence of strategy over our innovation activities

All too often strategy is not influencing the behaviours and outcomes around innovation, it is simply allowing them to be left to chance. Innovation is often being ‘pushed down’ the organization for others to interpret and offer their answers. This lack of alignment and top leadership engagement is one of the main causes why many organizations seem to just simply ‘limp’ along in their innovation activity.

Then those in leadership positions start expressing their disappointment over final innovation results, yet the answers simply lies more often than not as in their hands to resolve. Top leadership in organizations needs to shape innovation and be more involved in its strategic design. We need to resolve this innovation leadership gap of misunderstanding. We need to explain what their essential place is and provide the strategic frame to allow it to be understood. Then the contribution for innovation might be ‘allowed’ to deliver far more on its potential as it achieves that greater strategic alignment.

The absolute need is for leadership to lay in the guiding principles for innovation, to make it a more explicit innovation strategy and framework. This then does not stop at this alone, it then requires a consistent re-enforcing through policy shaping, strategic guidance and the operational documents to support this. Innovation requires on-going leadership engagement.

As you might already be aware, I have suggested the Senior Executive Innovation Work Mat as a framing document to provide this leadership dialogue for that essential organization engagement. This simply gives a much-needed focus, many of the strategic delivery points, structures and guidance for managing innovation.

Innovation Work Mat Overview

A strategic framework to moderate and accelerate meaningful innovation

The framework or work mat moderates innovation and goes much towards reducing the multiple interpretations and the variety of initiatives often described or justified as innovative but significantly missing the strategic mark. I would argue that most within the organization and those partnering with them, would appreciate a greater understanding of the core concepts, principles and direction that their innovation activity should take. To understand what is valued, essential to defend, promote and improve. To clarify what is highly strategic to describe and ‘form’ around helps innovation to perform its required task of delivering new growth that aligns into the strategic needs.

By having this work mat approach you can frame a formal set of mechanisms and principles for innovation to rise in quality. For instance in articulating that the selection of high potential concepts are highly valued and prized,  and will certainly get a certain ring-fencing and special dedicated attention, does radically alter the innovation work-to-be-done within any organization.

Equally, many within organizations where innovation is left more ‘open’ do run the risk that there is an over-emphasis on idea generation. By placing the emphasis point further along the innovation value chain that it is the exploring the benefits that flow from ideas, not the ideas alone, can make a significant difference in improving the quality of innovation and reducing the belief that quantity was the important aspect.

If the leadership could provide a more comprehensive innovation framework it would make such a difference. If this could cover the guiding principles, the mechanisms and ways the top leadership views innovation for its contribution to the organizations strategy, it would certainly offer a clear statement of innovations importance. This view can then ‘cascade’ throughout the organization, searching out its connecting points, proving the essential value, the debates required and facilitates the contributions, so innovation activities can relate far more to achieving the strategic growth goals.

Outlining the strategic principles of the innovation activity is vital.

Any strategic innovation framework needs to move well beyond offering just a set of indicators, it needs a far clearer articulation of what is valued, needed and will be well supported. For example by pushing and encouraging for the delivery of a few big bets shifts thinking radically away from incremental into more breakthrough in designs and concepts,. By offering a set of formal mechanisms for this selection of high potential concepts to be assessed, supported and effectively resourced would make a radical difference for many to make that mental shift in their innovation thinking. It prompts and provides the necessary stimulus.

Today many organizations presently find themselves locked in the innovation incremental trap. Real growth needs a more radical approach from innovation. Incremental innovation, often gives a very limited degree of security as others quickly copy or push this just a little bit further, so you are ending up chasing instead of making those leaps that give clear competitive space  where that ‘advantage’ can become a sustaining one.

Most of your innovation resources equally become locked within this incremental race, sucking up the innovation energies that should be ‘directed’ elsewhere. It is for the leadership to manage the risks of de-emphasizing that just simply  competing within the incremental race is not good enough. They provide the conditions that places a far higher emphasis on seeking out those innovation activities that will simply alter the race, radically.

Signalling a more innovation-orientated organization changes the dynamic forces within.

By having this more strategic and systematic approach does give a clear ‘signal’ that we need to be more of an innovation-orientated organization. A framework that is offering  the signposts and path finding points in vision, in proving the mechanisms for a whole innovation system transformation, in documentation, by engaging in constant discussions about innovation and its alignment to strategy, you move from ‘aspiration’ into gaining that ‘attraction power.’ You offer a fresh dynamic stock for innovation to feed from.

That would be for many, a strategy that is innovative itself. The frames intent, it’s very nature, is that it promotes excitement, growing identification, the chance to debate and offers that clarification so it can significantly provide the support to the people involved in innovating the ability to execute in a cohesive way their innovation activity. It provides the framing opportunity for that elusive alignment that is often missing in today’s organizations.

Achieving innovation alignment to strategic goals should be our aim in 2013

If we can achieve this innovation strategic alignment in what we do in 2013, we have significantly advanced innovation’s performance for leading us onto a greater growth track than where we find ourselves at the end of 2102. Perhaps that place where we are doing the disrupting and not simply reacting to be the ones always being disrupted is not a bad place to go, but it does need leadership and framing.

Seeking common cause through innovation

Although it is simple to state, creating a common language for innovation is very hard, demanding work. To begin to create it, then to gain a broader identification with its make-up and then to build upon it requires some dedicated time and effort, but above all, it needs recognition of its importance to obtaining a sustaining innovation entity.

Yet there is incredible sustaining value in achieving a common language. In the work that Jeffrey Phillips and I have been undertaking we see the Executive Innovation Work Mat  and its seven connected parts we really saw language, context and communications, as central to any innovation initiatives to work towards.

The Executive Innovation Work Mat

Languages unites us or divides us

Language can have the power to unite us or potentially divide us. Developing a language to unite us in our innovation efforts goes some way to reduce disagreements and egos, that can block success. To create an environment for innovation, to offer within a set of governance, process and functional structures, to build a culture responsive, we need this common cause, this central innovation language, our clear unifying context.

So much of innovation is piecing together many fragmented pieces, strands of knowledge that can be unstructured, can be very ambiguous, yet requires sound judgement. Innovation builds on shared experience and the quality of its interaction points. The more we learn to collaborate, the more we begin to share experiences, the more we achieve a growing common language. We need to bring together increasingly the parts that growing specialisation, our limited grasp of all the complexities that can influence a decision. We need to constantly reconcile incoming information with our own language of understanding, so we need to strive towards improving the common parts surely?

We all have different meaning and interpretations.

Each organization has specifics in meaning that can often end up in results that break down and so deliver results totally different from their original intent.  We think we communicate well but those that receive this often apply different interpretations that confirm their personal views, they often apply subtle nuances and variations, and it is within these different readings we can suffer costly errors, extensive delays and wrong end results in final product or service delivery. We suffer significant inefficiencies because we don’t pay enough attention to ensuring the correct meaning is well understood, we simply believe our way of thinking is the only way it is conveyed to be understood, and as we all know, this is often far from the reality.

We need to seek explicit language and context to allow innovation to do its final job, of delivering a valuable new contribution that builds on the existing and meets new market and customers’ needs or the jobs-to-be-done.  Innovation becomes highly constrained if we fail to find that common language, that common purpose, the understand of the right context and ended up providing something that was not as good as it could have been or completely off track on the original insight . It somehow got lost in translation. Translation is one of those keys that can unlock innovation and partly why the work mat is constructed the way it is.

Our reasoning for specifically highlighting common language and context

The reason we called the Work Mat, the Executive innovation Work Mat was that innovation suffers when it does not have total, enthusiastic support and senior leaders real involvement. The leaders of organizations have the ability to drive innovation across and down the organization, they can build the connections so activities, teams and individuals can identify and gain in their innovation confidence. Today, many leaders fail to understand their vital part in this process. We want to change that.

It is really only at the top you can provide the best framework and design for stronger facilitation, understanding and negotiations to occur around the innovation activity. In organizations innovation must increasingly become totally aligned to the strategic goals. If you want to achieve this, executive and organizational engagement to deliver on this strategic intent needs an overarching framework.

The outcome we believe comes significantly through the work mat. It can be cascaded down the organization once the top team has worked through its seven essential parts and are satisfied that they do provide a compelling story on innovation. Then equally it can come back up the organization, so it allows for the further identification and a greater ‘dynamic’ engagement of its connected parts, as the framework continues to achieve this executive and organizational alignment, through its constant encouragement and support, as its central tenet.

Common language is a constant dialogue and exploration

Any innovation common language needs working upon. It needs to be current, relevant, accurate and highly visible throughout the entire organization. It also needs to be allowed to grow and flourish. A common language equally allows for a knowledge repository to potentially prosper. I refer you to my previous thoughts on where absorptive capacity fits within this, in its steps of acquiring, assimilating, transforming and exploiting but this needs a clear structure and commonality to it, to gain its lasting benefit.

In any common language we need to master the knowledge to exploit it and extract what it can offer. We need to appreciate always its terms, its definitions (and limitations) and the related performance values to improve our performance and achieve others understanding of our meaning. The more we practice and move towards a common understanding of innovation, we are actually moving towards clarifying and reconciling, as best we can, within the constraints of what common language or context offers. We give innovation a greater chance to succeed. A common language enables greater transparency, clarity in accountability through its definitions; we achieve greater collaborative dialogues and meet more concurrence than without this move towards a common understanding.

Why should we have a common language for innovation?

I was reading an article from Raj Kumar, a founding director at AIM Knowledge Management Systems, based in India on one of his hack blogs within MIX. Some of his points are specifically valuable and I can see apply here in discussing common languages and seeking common cause and “played back” in my way.

Knowledge more than ever plays its part

In a McKinsey study they argue we need more knowledge workers more than ever. We are all increasingly dealing with increased ambiguity and having to apply increasing levels of judgement and draw even more on our experiences far more. To meet this we need increasing knowledge interactions. According to one study 70 per cent of all US jobs created since 1998 require judgement and experience and these now make up over 40 per cent of the total labour market in the United States.

I would support this knowledge need. The quality of the required interactions needs to reduce our own often fixed ‘mindset’ and understanding and be open to exchange and understanding. A common language within innovation can, and does, cut out potential misunderstandings and improve process, assumptions. We can move quicker and be ready to explore generalizations, for finding within these a greater range of more specific opportunities. We can achieve this by having some greater confidence and trust in how we all share and see ‘things’ that draws often the disparate parts together.

Delaying decisions can help

Also although this can be open to interpretation we often do need to delay decisions until the latest possible time to improve the chances of this being right. Does that fly in the face of innovation? No, if you are seeking greater understanding, not for the sake of it but for its value to improve, adapt and increase the potential of the innovation activity. The more you are informed, the better chances of a good decision that leads to a better result. We are being increasingly asked to make better and bigger judgement calls and this becomes one of the reasons you need a clear innovation organizing framework, through the executive innovation work mat  (link to white paper) that encourages, supports and guides your decisions.

Collaboration platforms need a soul or DNA to be valuable

Kumar also brings out an important point that struck me hard. We constantly seek out improved collaboration tools, we push people to self-organize to drive interactions and populate the collaborative platform but he argues this is a form of organization blindness. The tools we provide are in his words, “akin to sign language”, they do not (yet) bring in the loops of learning, the rich DNA to foster meaningful collaboration as the (present) format ignores much of the conduct and make up to get to a certain point.

He suggests meaningful collaborations are made up of purpose, goals, vocabulary, their assembly, the focus, the product, parsing (the context), the audience and finally the driving energy. We need to capture all of these within any common language for innovation so we have its context, goals and engagement clear. Kumar believes IT is getting closer to aid this.

His compelling energy framework has interesting potential

I like his “compelling energy” framework, made up of compelling adoption, pursuit of truth, communities involved, contemplation time lines, teamwork and trust, commitment, innovation, good governance and seeking a culture of excellence. I’ll leave you to read an extensive discussion on this compelling “hack” of Kumar’s.

He defines within this framework part on innovation and suggests you set up innovation by need definition, thought-evolution and breaking of moulds – that does sound ‘compelling’ to explore more and a basis for a new mind change to move us from incremental to greater innovation advancement and breakthroughs. I’m thinking over this.

A bedrock for sustaining innovation is a common intent, language and context

Common language is the bedrock for how we set about innovation. It cannot be silo driven, unless you want stilted results with incremental innovation as likely, the best you can achieve most of the time within this ‘constraint’. How we go about our communications, what and who you can connect with and your level of innovation engagement, do matter significantly. It is the ability to find common identity, a real unifying sense of purpose that sends positive signals to all involved and those interested parties, often external to your ‘inner’ innovation process, to engage fully.

A common purpose for innovation, set within clear guidelines and a framework, as we have proposed through the executive innovation work mat, gives innovation that clear ‘voice’. It allows us all to gather around a consistent language of innovation as it places more on the context of why, where and how you want to manage innovation, and can conduct its different parts in a certain ‘fluidness’ that gives shape and meaning to innovation and all its critical inter-connected parts that make up the Work Mat.

Please note: All the executive innovation work mat hyper-links are pointed to different aspects or papers that might have value in exploring this area further.

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 dark side of the innovation moon

Ever wondered what is on the other side of the moon when you look up towards it? Do we really need to look beyond our own horizons in our daily lives? Should we question beyond our existing horizons in how we go about innovating, to explore, to push ourselves into the unknown?

What about the other side, the darker, unknown side of the moon. Are you ever curious of what lies behind what we can see? I certainly am.

Innovation is perhaps like the moon. We only see a part of it wherever we stand, we appreciate that part and value what we see and work within. It is even better if we can repeat it again and again. It can even offer something reassuring and comfortable, we grow comfortable within our own known borders of innovation activity.

What happens though, when we suddenly face a crisis? Or our innovation activity that has happily gone on and on, is abruptly questioned due to some sudden changes in the market place? Then we often enter the unknown side, the darker, murkier side of innovation, where uncertainties lurks, this is like maybe the other side of the moon, out there but not part of our ‘seen’ world until now. It unexpectedly challenges what we know and leaves us vulnerable and uncertain. It also prompts us to be curious.

The issue becomes, what is the power of knowing that darker side of the innovation moon beforehand? Maybe it is the explorer within us all. Knowing whats actually out there. Understanding as much of the whole innovation moon would be good for many of us but we would like to do this safely within our existing comfort zone. What we would ideally love is not just a glimpse of the far side, that darker, unknown side, but a chance to visit it, just to see if it is something for us or not. How can we do this, can we prepare?

Visiting the dark side of the innovation moon

I think we all do need to gain a really good glimpse of the total innovation moon. It would help us to be better equipped to be ready for different eventualities that are more often than not, coming our way in unexpected ways.

What can be provided that allows us to move around innovation with more confidence, to experience it, to explore it and then become eventually more comfortable with it so as to work all sides of this innovation moon?

To orbit the innovation moon we do need to rise up and go beyond our day-to-day lives. We need to look at innovation in its broader context; we need to understand all of its inter-connected parts. So much of the innovation moon often remains in mystery, the side that faces away from us.

Part of my job is to encourage you to not only leave your comfort zone but to attempt to offer the framing techniques and approaches to equip you for deepening your journey onto the darker, less known sides of your innovation understanding.

How can we explore all the potential within innovation?

We should ask of ourselves, what does block out the light, the understanding of gaining a fuller understanding of innovation. Is it a lack of time, of incentive or it is not simply part of our job, the role expected by the organization we work for does not want us to be curious? We need a way to freshly connect, to relay and make exploration, to feel like we can make a safe venture. To do this we often need permission to go beyond our existing horizons.

Equally we each have to ask ourselves what and where are the dark sides of the innovation moon for us? Why are these differences on the side that faces away from us, the unknown sides of the innovation moon? We do need to open up and seek out far more.

This blog site was deliberately set up to help in this, along with my advising, coaching, researching and consulting work to help you in your innovation focus. I’m trying to add the ‘innovation fuel’ and essential frameworks and equipment to help you explore innovation with growing confidence and continued support.

The power and force of the dark side has growing attraction

The difference that can be made is distinctive innovation, breakthrough and disruptive innovation. This is the attraction of exploring the dark side of the innovation moon, it is what investors and your organizations are looking for, that makes you stand out and be different. You have pushed the boundaries.

Those creative forces, the unique breakthroughs, the distinctive products, services and different business models that allow us to break free of the pull of the gravity that often holds the majority back, that is the attraction of the dark side of innovation. This often require us to move out of our comfort zones, be pushed to explore the other side, the far side of our thinking.

We all are in need of making fresh moonwalks.

To understand the whole innovation moon we do need to make moonwalks. We need to explore, we need to map out the terrain. I think we need a new model that tackles innovation so it can articulate for all and becomes the innovation roadmap that communicates to us all in a way that makes clear connection. We need more help in reducing uncertainty and replace it with something that gives us all a feeling of being part of something bigger and more exciting, something we want to take part within.

We all need to visit the dark side of the innovation moon. I am more than happy to walk alongside you, actually I’d welcome it, as we all gain a new perspective when we do make any journey.

Aware, Exploit and Sustain Innovation Framework

I have a secret confession to make, I collect innovation frameworks, there I’ve admitted to it, and feel just that little bit better that one of my innovation secrets is out.

This collection has built up over eight or so years and I have certainly seen some really excellent ones but also some seem pretty thin, those “oh dear” moments! I suppose I collect these a little like collecting pictures; some rare, some new, some promising but you can recognize and appreciate each for expressing that often difficult task of encapsulating innovation in any organizing framework.  Sometimes it simply boils down to each to their own, as long as it does the job, then fine.

Although I’m always curious to see how these seemingly can differ so much. Many I’m just convinced don’t go underneath the initial organizing framework top picture and I feel that is wrong. Some just seem to skate on innovation ‘thin’ ice.

I’ve used one over a number of years that I feel builds innovation systematically.

For some years I’ve been using one within my advisory business as a great frame to build from. It is based on three phases that you need to work through- aware, exploit and sustain and has a support base essential for this to work.

Let me provide a visual of the organizing framework

The Aware Exploit & Sustain Innovation Framework

The framework attempts to be a fairly comprehensive one that I would ideally want to (fully) work through if asked to build any innovation capabilities and competencies. It is an exploring framework, meaning that sitting behind it is a significant set of sub sections or component dimensions, which build towards this top level frame shown above.

I’m not claiming this is ‘the’ answer or even a distillation of all the frameworks I have collected, it was developed fairly independently and just happens to work for me. Usually I use this in much of my early engaging work with clients, so as to begin to build up a comprehension through this organizing framework, so as to give some underlying substance to their emerging innovation activity.

Any Innovation Journey has lots of complexity underneath it.

Each of the component dimensions has considerable complexity to dip in and out to build a reasonable understanding of what does make up innovation. Let me illustrate this through one example from each of the stages- Aware, Exploit & Sustain and finally the necessary supporting or foundation part, Support.

1. An example of the component the Innovation Context in the Aware Stage

Innovation Context Example in Aware for Innovation

2. An example of the component Resource Development in the Exploit Stage.

Resource Capabilities Example in Exploit

3. An example of the component Networks within the Sustain Stage

The Example of Networks within Sustain for Innovation

Networks component example in the Sustain part

4. Finally an example of the component of Communication in the Support Stage

Communications components example for Support

Whatever framework you do select- do select carefully.

My advice on selecting any organizing frameworks is to compare and contrast, to explore and get underneath. Achieving a comprehensive understanding of innovation is often badly lacking for many in their need to understand. The one I’ve provided above is certainly capable to deliver a solid grasp of what is needed in building innovation capabilities and capacity.

I certainly believe that and framework does have these three phases of becoming Aware, a need to Exploit and an ability to Sustain any innovation momentum and also provide the necessary Support.

If you are curious to go into this further then you know where to find me. I remain always curious on how innovation is depicted so as to build my knowledge further. As always, I am ready to discuss the need for an innovation organizing framework in your particular innovating circumstances.