I’ve always loved this: “appropriate adaptiveness is not a natural tension- it has to be designed.” OK, I can hear you quietly sniggering.
When you are dealing with the innovation process you naturally have tension. Often if you have no tension or simply too much slack built into the process, you don’t end up in achieving a good result. Results fall well below expectations. It is often this lack of designed-in ‘tension’ that is not appreciated like it should be within the innovation process. The wrong tension is left to eat away at the innovation process. Getting the right balance of tension is critical to get the best out of the ‘system’ of innovation.
Firstly a cautionary warning here.
Now this is about to get into the realms of theory but I hope you stay with me on this. Why? Well knowing why innovation does fail can be useful (to your future) and what you can design into it, so as to reduce this risk has some value, I would think. So tune out or hang in- your choice.
Using theory often helps- really!
According to Professor Clayton Christensen the only way to look into the future is to use theories. “The best way to make accurate sense of the present, and the best way to look into the future, is through the lens of theory.”A good theory provides a robust way to understand important developments, even when the data is limited. “Theory helps to block out the noise and to amplify the signal”.
The theory of innovation helps to understand the forces that shape the context and influence natural decisions. You should consciously design in tension into your innovation process.
Let me explain this in its different parts.
Coherence in purpose & consistency is what we all desire
It is accepted wisdom in today’s environment, enterprises cannot design and impose from the top down, it stifles far too much and limits creativity. Strategies do not only emerge from the whole but from the sum of all the parts and it is the diversity within the parts gives the ‘richness’ to innovation. These parts are the emergent strategies that combine with a deliberate (approach) to strategy and become the realised and appropriate strategy. Within an organization we seek to have coherence in purpose and through this a consistency in behaviour. Innovation needs that as well.
Clarity of the vision (our strategic mission) of where we want to be and an honest assessment of ‘where we are today’, our current reality point, signals always a clear gap. It is this gap that is a natural tension for organizations to bridge and close. They do this through this creative tension of moving from reality to the vision. “I have a dream” by Martin Luther Kong Jr resonated with equally ‘where we are today’ to make it a defining moment. Innovation equally requires both, the vision and the honest assessment so the solutions are worked upon to close the gap. This is the creative tension we need to design into our process. This is one of our appropriate tension points.
Context and co-ordination
For me always knowing the context is critical. If we do not have a deep understanding of the why, what, how, then we are never going to offer the best solutions or come close. Far too often, context is forgotten in many new initiatives and the reason they flounder. It is like our current reality point. If you don’t know these, innovation becomes really hard to deliver the results you want.
Context is made up of many things, this can include the purpose and bounds, the capabilities and role structures within any social system that innovation tends to work within. By being explicit you actually highlight the tensions and you get closer to producing a ‘decent’ innovation brief.
We should look at context within this thinking through in this way:
- The purpose of innovation as a whole is to do what? What’s its contribution to the total mission, its primary function, its value.
- You set the bounds of innovative behaviour, experimentation and guiding principles to provide a growing empowerment and governance, this unleashes creativity and promotes the boundaries where innovation can play!
- Capabilities to produce certain outcomes (deliverables) need to be in place to meet the mission and it is critical to understand these and set about providing these skill sets needed for innovation to be managed robustly and with depth of diversity and understanding of their contributions into the process.
- The roles that will be held accountable for producing the outcomes need defining and articulating and then managing consistently and well.
This clarity of innovation purpose is the leader’s role to co-ordinate and through the structures provided you can begin to manage the outcomes as well as to evaluate if these outcomes are achieving the goals and closing that gap between vision and today’s reality. If not , then he or she needs to loop back and tighten the tensions, to adapt them in design for achieving the appropriate innovation system. This is a critical leadership task, like designing a talent development structure to achieve your goals.
Recognizing there are differing rates of exchange
“Achieving this coherence between context and co-ordination of outcomes is subject to natural tensions”
Organisations have layers, a hierarchy to deliver the means, and these change at different rates of ‘shear’ against each other, these are often natural tensions sometimes mistaken as politics, inability or poor understanding. Management often fails to recognize these natural tensions.
One classic example is the horizon of an end result that the different level of the organization sees. This has a sheering effect between the layers involved. Innovation gets badly caught up in this.
When is the right timeframe for innovation delivery? Is this next quarter, next year, in three years or in what period? Setting about establishing that innovation simply does not conform to annual financial calendars and needs to be accounted for differently become important to establish. This can allow innovation concepts to move within their more natural discovery /development cycle to achieve the right delivery of innovation value. Far too often it is being shoehorned into an unnatural calendar that limits the original concept and compromises the potential result, one that could allow for delivering more game-changing innovation.
If only innovation could have this recognition that it is different from finished goods and allowed to be set within a different cycle than financially driven based on financial calendar would have a most positive effect. You are designing in a more natural set of tensions and resolving some of those sheering effects that are occurring that are negative in their tensions. (Sheering is when tectonic plates are forced together and create this sheering effect – earthquakes, tsunamis, disruption).
If we could place innovation into three time horizons that you will find I’ve discussed in previous blogs in some detail. Briefly this recognize different horizons:
- Goals- achievements within the period covered (by a financial review)- milestones
- Objectives- attained later but are progressed and those parts accounted for within the period
- Ideals- unattainable within the time period but progress is possible during and after the period under review.
These are actually different rates of exchange that can apply a consistency of behaviour (and understanding) and be configured within the innovation process accordingly. These need to be appropriately designed into the system.
As we study ecosystems we see they reflect the sheering effect.
In a study of ecosystems by Robert V O’Neill and others, published in a book called “A Hierarchical Concept of Ecosystems” by observing rates of change of different components you see the dynamics and tensions within a system. For example, hummingbirds and flowers are quick, redwood trees slow, and whole redwood forests are even slower. Most interaction is within the same pace level- hummingbirds and flowers pay attention to each other, oblivious to redwoods, who are oblivious of them. Meanwhile the forest is attentive to climate changes but not the hasty fate of individual trees.
The insight can be often applied to innovation:
“The dynamics of the system will be dominated by the slow components, with the rapid components simply following along. Slow constrains quick, slow controls quick”
Tension occurs as faster changing layers sheer against slower ones, impatience and resistant ‘kick in’ when innovation is demanded, or promised and is not delivered as expected. Knowing the tension points and recognizing their negative effect needs designing out. Again we need to have appropriate adaptiveness designed in, we need to place tension into a context and we need to keep it creative in tension.
Innovation should be the regular way of daily thinking
We should view tensions among innovation, values and risk not as conflicts to be avoided, but as opportunities to be managed. It is the impact of appropriate values and organisational culture that create the ‘right’ tension to allow innovation to thrive or wither.
It is the successful ability of encouraging opportunity, of converting ideas into practices and accepting that there are risks associated, without knowing for sure, that generate new products, services or processes that close our gap between a vision and our present reality.
How do we balance and encourage natural tension’s?
These exist between all the parts of the organization that need to innovate and how we manage successfully the different attitudes to risk that will reside there. How do we organize-to-innovate? What structure needs to be in place to accommodate risk-taking? How do we seize on opportunities quickly?
Adapting the context-and-coordination approach has value here.
The process of adaptiveness is likened to a pilot’s ability to learn through the mental process: “observe, orient, decide and act.” This constitutes an (adaptive) loop. It contains the four essential functions to any adaptive organization of:“sensing, interpreting, deciding and acting” This adaptive loop is a method for institutional learning. The key is “learning what?” then “how should we learn?” but an organization has to learn to fulfil its purpose, in this case to close the gap with innovation.
To build in tension we need to become more of those innovation learning organizations.
I’m not sure how many people have read Peter Senge’s book “The Fifth Discipline” but it offers a roadmap for changing our current organizations into learning ones, ones that build innovation into everyday thinking. He suggests five critical needs: 1. System thinking, 2. Personal mastery, 3. Mental modes, 4. Building shared vision and 5. Team learning.
I think exploring these you build in the appropriate natural tensions that innovation requires but you firstly have to make that honest assessment of your current reality, and sadly far too many organizations or leaders are not prepared to do this, they prefer to labour under mistaken reality.
Leadership needs innovation to happen
Leadership has to create the environment to successfully handle paradox, complexity and in the end risk. It needs to design in the appropriate system to allow innovation to work, to permit creative tension to take place. Failure to create this right ‘mix’ will often mean they lose the opportunity both within the organisation and especially in the market place as they have not understood the complexity of the innovation ecosystem they need to manage.
Leadership has the role of getting the right balance, the right design tension into the innovating system, so as to bring out the best from this participation of all the opposing forces for greater innovation opportunity. Harnessing risk and opportunity for innovation is essential, managing its tension becomes essential to be designed in, not simply allowed to happen. Understanding this is important for innovation to succeed.