Learning the mantra of innovation context

Innovation Context is KingWe have all got used to the statement it is all about “location, location, location” for real-estate. So what should the mantra be for innovation? I think “context, context and context”. Context is a king.

Innovation happens all around us, same as with our places where we live- it is determined by many factors but given a choice we want to live somewhere nice, safe and hopefully going up in value! The same with innovation we want it to be good, attractive, useful and valued by many, hopefully willing to part with their money because it fulfils their need.

Innovation should always start of by being placed in its appropriate context otherwise it will lose its initial connection, dilute in the eventual value and arrive as less desirable because we somehow and somewhere went off track We lost the context because we never really established the real ‘sense of purpose’ for that specific innovation or given direction to explore.

Why do I believe context is the king when it comes to innovation?

The power of context shifts everything and then gives it ‘shape’. It provides the conditions and the circumstances of time and place and why we need to find and deliver something different. It provides the innovation marching orders.

If we place innovation in a certain set of contexts, then those setting about the task are more sensitive to the needs and understanding, they can relate or can reject this. It can allow them to work more clearly and effectively, not necessarily efficiently as innovation is inherently messy.

Context gives us certain guard rails or borders to help gain a more united focus. Where we go after that, by pushing those borders will depend on those involved by seeing a greater value in an evolving context of mutual understanding. The ‘setting it in context’ allows for dialogue, adding more value to the thinking.

If we don’t know why we are doing something in our innovation activities, there is a good chance we will just stop innovating and switch to auto-pilot. We become disinclined to be creative as we don’t understand the “what for”. Knowing the context allows us to engage.

Context needs to also become, increasingly the arbitrator of success. Around this, you form your community that seeks out the possible solutions to this. Context gives knowledge into the hands of others to go and work on finding possible solutions. Knowing the context, gives us something highly relevant to judge eventual outcomes on.

Context must lead, functionality and capability then follow

There is a flow for improving innovation performance. If we don’t frame the business context how can we compare and contrast?  How do we know what we are missing or what it is meant to be achieving? When we go about seeking out opportunities we need to understand the context these are placed in, the avenue of competitive advantage the new solution is attempting to address.

This requires a ‘decent’ vision, often beyond a product brief that might be adjusted as we learn more, it needs to fit into the context of our business strategy and goals, our ambitions of what we want innovation to achieve. We need to have something we can measure ‘it’ against with all the commitment of time and resource. We need to give our search for innovation some function and form. We begin to reveal our ‘gaps’ when we have a ‘reasonable clue of where we are heading.

Then we each have of our personal contexts that form our identity and motivations to help in delivering the innovation, these will lead us into our performance and contribution. Here by knowing the context does helps us assess if we have the capabilities in knowledge, skills, experience and expertise to deliver on the context or not.

Knowing the context actually empowers us, it gives us the reference points of our engagement. It allows us to work towards plugging those gaps to lead to improved functionality and capabilities gained.

We can apply our capacities to absorb and learn.

We can become adaptive. We can set about acquiring, assimilating, transforming and exploiting knowledge far better if we know the context it is needed to be applied. I wrote an article on absorptive capacity recently where I stated “The value of absorptive capacity is that when organizations have some prior knowledge they are more receptive to adding new understandings and new ideas”

The lessons of placing ‘it’ in context are powerful. We are more than sensitive to change; it can be a negative or positive experience. If we place great attention to context always, in our conversations, in our goal setting, in our innovation work it becomes one of the powerful enablers of bringing about change.

Context does not just ‘set’ but it ‘allows’ innovation to happen.

You are putting knowledge into the hands of the people willing to make it happen. Allow them to invent, to brainstorm, and to generate concepts, prototypes because alongside the mantra of “context, context, and context” you place equally “people, people, people” as innovation only happens through people.

You give each person the explicit encouragement, by laying these in the right context, then you can simple ‘get out of the way’ and let them go to work in delivering innovative solutions to that context. You are all working off of the same, often ‘dynamic’ page, as the innovation evolves, so does the context get refreshed. Innovation takes on a distinct identity for all involved.

Of course context is going to be fluid

It is going to be needed to be adaptive as we learn but it will be placed in ‘certain bounds’. If we start from a much clearer starting base then the learning and discovery allows people to want to find solutions as they gain increased knowledge and provide fresh inputs, they begin to strongly relate.

The innovation activity becomes eventually a thriving community working in the innovation context where new beliefs can be practised, expressed and nurtured.  As Malcolm Gladwell put it in his book “The Tipping Point :How little things can make a big difference”, the lesson is in the value of the Power of Context.

Dancing the innovation stepsContext sets us the dancing music, the ‘one step, two-step’ of learning and knowing, searching and discovering. As we ‘tune in’ we begin to move and respond, it sets the conditions to build the rhythm needed for innovation. It allows for the further steps, the pivotal ones, those that lead you to a better chance of producing winning innovation simply by knowing the critical aspect of “it’s”context. Context gives our innovation activity its meaning and sense of purpose.

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.