Innovation has layers that shear against each other.

“Slow constrains quick, slow controls quick”

There is so much built in tension, bias, barriers, mindsets, mental model conflicts, and all types of friction seemingly going on around us, you must sometimes think all our organizations can only be totally dysfunctional.

The Scream by Edvard Munch for Dysfunctional Organizations

Has anyone not come across some or all of these?

Dysfunctional leadership symptoms and those typical warning signs of dictatorial leadership, no feedback on performance, personal agendas, more ‘political’ compensation than ‘performance related ones, inefficient use of resources, empire-building practices, unequal workload distribution, too much management, fragmented organization efforts.

There is simply just too much talk, ineffective  and incessant meetings, a lack of collaboration across departments, ‘selective’ low productivity when you are working way beyond the normal, feeling in a constant crisis mode, watching a morale deterioration take place before your eyes, the,  backstabbing, starving projects of essential resources and finally, working in highly stressful workplaces.

A pretty depressing list isn’t it? I’m sure you can think of a few more besides.

When you are up against some or all of these how can you feel trust, belief and be innovative? Partly from what I’ve been reading and from my own perspective let me offer some thoughts to reduce some of these unhealthy tensions organizations seem to have, that certainly act as real constraints for innovation to really take hold.

How can you break into this and design something different?

Recently a number of comments have triggered my thinking about this whole area of blockages that seem to not allow innovation to take hold in organizations the way it needs too. The writing of Scott Anthony recently under the article “Negotiating Innovation & Control”, the book “Relentless Innovation” and stream of thought provoking views of Jeffrey Phillips wanting us to challenge the “Business as Usual” approach.

Then we have Gary Hamel in his new book “What Matters Now”  where he shares his agenda for building organizations, that can flourish in a world of diminished hopes, relentless change and ferocious competition. This is not a book about doing better. This is an impassioned plea to reinvent management as we know it—to rethink the fundamental assumptions we have about capitalism, organizational life, and the meaning of work.

Each has a theme running through them in different ways, the need to achieve continuous innovation needs a massive change in mindset and in managing the ‘heart’ of the organization. This heart is unhealthy and will need new values, new processes and new belief systems. You add in calls from John Hagel, John Seely Brown, Ranjay Gulati  and countless others, we are in need of a more radical agenda to rethink management, not just for innovation management.

The legend of the Gordian Knot

Some time back Chuck Frey, well known in innovation circles, wrote about the Gordian Knot. “For people the world over, the Gordian Knot represents the difficult, the intractable and often the insolvable problem. Today’s systemic business problems are the modern-day equivalent of this seemingly impossible challenge.

According to Greek mythology,  the huge, ball-like Turkish knot with no ends exposed was impossible to untie. An oracle had predicted that the first person to do so would become the ruler of all Asia. Thousands of people had tried, without success, to unlock its complex riddles. Alexander of Macedonia, son of King Philip II of Macedon, solved this puzzle simply and very creatively – by cutting it in half with his sword, exposing its ends and making it possible to untie. Alexander the Great went on to conquer all of Asia, just as the oracle predicted”.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

So how can we cut the intractable knot inside organizations and survive?

We all face increasing uncertainties and are having our trust battered. We are seemingly not rising to the challenges that seem to be growing in complexity in global and organizational context.Innovation has a vital role to play but it must be ‘treated’ differently.

Where do we start? Firstly we need to revisit the work on “adaptive enterprises and systems”. We need to find ways to deal with unpredictable, discontinuous change and make this more predictable for us to manage.

We lack often a real coherence of purpose; we lurch from one opportunity to another, from one quarter of results into another with often no consistency in our activities. Performance has been taken over by opportunistic behaviors.  Innovation often takes the real brunt of this.

Our intended strategy, moves suddenly into a deliberate strategy, and then somehow this gets abandoned or unrealized and slowly we replace this with a emergent strategy that is rapidly become our realized strategy that we present to the world, as a response to ‘factors outside our control’ for our often indifferent performance. Who really talks about the EXACT results achieved from innovation for instance? All we hear is just a general reference to it, to cloak innovation often in the ineffectiveness that lies within.

For innovation and many things going on within organizations they often lack a real coherence, they ‘signal’ inconsistent behaviors, especially within the organization. These bad signals simply build up all the tensions and dysfunctional aspects that middle order management and the organization in general has to mop up and cope with.

How can innovation thrive in this sort of chaotic mess? No wonder it never takes hold, it just has nothing ‘permanent’ to attach too and grow. Management needs a radical overhaul so innovation can be the vehicle for what is articulated but often poorly delivered on a consistent basis.

Context & Coordination needs designing in purposefully.

Again, where do we start? We start with ‘disconnect’ that organizations often have. The understanding of the underlying purpose of the organization beyond just making money and keeping the shareholders happy does need a deeper primary function, it needs re-articulating. Some organizations do a reasonable job of this but many simply don’t.

We need to restate our primary function and purpose far more in its societal contribution. We need to express the bounds as a governing set of principles that are known, reinforced and measured against. We then need to set about building in a consistent way, the capabilities that are able to produce the outcomes.

We need to build in the accountability into the roles that reflect that need to combine innovation, effectiveness and efficiency, that is needed so they can be managed equally side by side. We need to teach the ability to be adaptable and recognize the differences so as to actively manage the ‘creative’ conflicts and tensions.

Reduce the tension in the layers or structures

The really hard part of managing in larger organizations is in managing the layers and competing forces. Often we forget to reinforce acceptable behaviors, we leave role structures lose and incomplete and we set deliverables in often ‘woolly’ ways. This just promotes uncertainly and it is not an adaptive organization in leaving this so open. These unnatural built-in tensions create this shearing effect. They grind against each other, like tectonic plates that force further disruption and upheaval.

These different layers actually require several levels of reconfiguration designed into the organization. One really critical one to address and to ‘kill off,’ is the pressure of time. Time horizons to achieve different tasks often cannot be ‘legislated’ or ‘dictated’ but sadly they are forced on reluctant innovators responsible for delivery of new concepts.

We need to re-establish the difference between goals– within a certain period covered (one year), objectives– attained later but are progressed within the period and finally ideals– those unattainable but clearly possible concepts, that progress at slower rates and go well beyond normal goals. Innovation works within this environment, actually it will thrive.

Not just the incremental, but the radical, disruptive and breakthrough innovation craved for by the top management, can finally have a ‘decent’ time horizon to be managed through. Planning needs to account for all three horizons and publically discussed, irrespective of the industry you are in, it does not matter if you are building planes or developing food products.

We really should stop pretending that innovation is not so hard and actually state it is often incompatible to much of what we perform on a daily basis. The task of managing intangibles (unknowns) alongside tangibles (the known) needs greater appreciation of their complexities, and the difficulties of balancing the two for achieving  a ‘decent’ result.

Leadership, I believe, would need to understand innovation far more in this demanding environment of inquiry. No wonder it is often ducked and just vaguely talked about, about as much of innovation understanding is still poorly understood in its impacts and effect.

The opportunity of the network economy

Again, the realization of the growing web of networks that we are constantly engaging with, is our need to become part of a growing new more adaptive innovating enterprise. We need to encourage more empowerment to engage with outside parties, to explore, to investigate, to bring in and then diffuse and disperse in new ways. For this we need to design around more absorptive capacity that I’ve often written about. (See

Reducing activities and replacing these with outcome orientation

Innovation is no different from what we expect from efficiency or effectiveness; we want to see the outcomes.   We have struggled on many parts of this establishing of the really good metrics for judging innovation. They seem to get lost within organizations. Part of the innovation activities has been assigned to some other cost centre, or the capacity was already established and thus accounted for, and we often don’t revisit these and break these down and assign these clearly enough to the different activities in new ways to capture ‘real costs’, yet we should, but into outcome orientation ones that show a meaningful ‘return’ on investments put in. So many different, more thought- provoking questions can be asked for a greater engagement in the innovation process. Were the activities contributing to efficiency or innovation? We can judge these far better through the effectiveness of the outcome.

We need to balance existing performance engines for repeatable everyday tasks with innovation delivery engines for new activities. This split can help to make our organizations function more effectively. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble have offered some thoughts on this at the implementation stage, although this thinking still needs more examination and discussion.

As Scott Anthony points out in his article “Negotiating Innovation and Control’ on the different ways to balance tension, there is one, in my opinion, that needs deeper investigation and development and that is the ‘ambidextrous’ one. This makes distinctions but links the parts of the whole organization by developing competing frames, not competing forces.I believe exploitation and exploration as natural break points within innovation. Roger Martin suggests in one of his books “The Opposable Mind” that we need to develop “integrative thinking” as part of this need to change but still work in these ambidextrous ways..

Ecosystems often reflect the shearing effect.

In any environment the ‘rates of exchange’ of the different components or constituents operate at different speeds. Interactions clearly occur far more at your own level of contribution, the different layers sometimes you are simply oblivious too or just ignore. The ‘in-spite of’ syndrome often kicks in to explain sometimes surprising success. Sometimes though, something catastrophic does occurs and then you do have to pay attention to this ( a merger, layoffs, threat of closure, withdrawal of funds) but the real reality is, different layers within organizations tend to be often simply oblivious, even impervious, to necessary change and just ‘does its job’ and it moves along, each actually constrain the others, not facilitating them as they could..

Maybe then, this is why so many organizations seem dysfunctional but do continue to survive, to limp along, until something really does disrupt their world, as the existing ecosystem just seems to allow different interactions and speeds. Can we not alter this though, perhaps in more thoughtful ways, rather than the ‘carrot and the stick’ approach or ‘fear and retribution’ methodologies often employed to achieve results?

The worrying thing is any dynamics within the system are dominated by the slow components, and the rapid components simply have to follow along. Slow constrains quick, slow controls quick. The only way to ensure a speeding up is to be coherent on the purpose, clarify the bounds and governing principles that need to be enacted.

Simply by consciously working on all the dysfunction points within an organization will certainly reduce the tensions, reduce the shearing and allow the organization in all its layers to ‘react’ and be allowed to come back into a balance, where innovation sits equally alongside efficiency, especially if both focus on outcome orientation and that certainly is not the current business as usual we see today.

Perhaps working on these dysfunction spots it might free up some real, much needed space for innovation to take a deeper hold. It does seem with all the suggested emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness, if you accept this argument, it might be a good idea to have innovation alongside, as it does thrives more when there is creative tensions around!


7 thoughts on “Innovation has layers that shear against each other.

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