Innovation has a hard job to align

We need to recognize that innovation is one of the hardest things to align to strategy. It’s inherently messy, fairly unpredictable and its team-orientated approach sometimes cuts across borders, challenges different established positions and seemingly conflicting priorities.

It often challenges the status quo and can on certain occasions, potentially challenge the stated strategic goals as those ‘disruptive forces’ have not been addressed radically enough. Innovation often “asks” difficult questions of ourselves.

We keep asking a lot of innovators but consistently restrain them or starve them of essential resources, at the critical times they need them. We seem to get in the way of blocking innovation so it can’t be seen to align with the goals or vision of the organization.

We keep extorting innovators to raise their game, constantly trying to shape their work so it can fit. We are constantly encouraging innovators to abandon their personal judgments, open themselves up to different possibilities to try and make it “fit” with what we have got or already invested into.

We ask innovators to keep resolute and keep trying, keep pushing the boundaries, challenging and sometimes disrupting the established practices and processes, organizations like to keep in place but this is a very ‘uneasy’ and needs courage, belief but most of all alignment. Innovators need to feel confident they are fully supported and encouraged. They need empowering.

The innovator is constantly dealing with ambiguity, managing a far more dynamic process of knowledge learning and investigating. Often this is in direct conflict or tension with the majority of the organizations need to extract the most efficiencies and effectiveness out of the established systems and processes.

Strategic design often does not single out innovation as different, it expects it to comply. It is this lack of recognition that causes much of the misalignment, as it does not conform to the norm.

Yet strategy and innovation have much in common. They are both dealing with uncertainties, attempting to quantify uncertainties and unknowns, working towards a future state that advances the business by identifying and capturing new opportunities.

This is where cascading helps with alignment- consider a model

To achieve alignment, a cascade of better choices is needed that keeps mapping back to innovation activities and strategic need.

This calls for the need for a choice-cascade model where understanding flows through aligned cascading choices. Its aim is to empower firstly, by promoting and encouraging different levels of sound or best judgment, to enable individual choices, so as to allow for a ‘choice-maker’ to push this back upstream. Roger Martin and Hilary Austen have suggested the art of integrative thinking”.

Choice options cascade down from the higher-order choices. These should set the context for and constrain (help in defining) lower-order choices.

Choices become inter-related and need to fit context and constraints from this higher-level. If there is difficulty in the fit, then the higher order needs urgently revisiting, hence the cascading effect is a constant, dynamic two-way flow.

Today, if we recognize change is a constant, flowing and rapidly changing part of how we do business, by having in place this choice cascading model you can unfreeze part of a strategy that is not ‘aligning’ with a changing world. It makes the decision-making process more dynamic and allows for greater contribution to strategic choices and the innovation process can equally respond and align on a far quicker, adaptive path.

Choice-cascade needs structure and operating principles

Choice makers within this model need to be explicit in the why:

  1. Explain the choice that has been made and the explicit rationale behind it
  2. Explicitly identify the next downstream choice to make it a joint venture
  3. Assist in making the downstream choice happen explicitly
  4. Commit to revisiting and modifying the choice based on explicit downstream feedback

To move towards choices that can outline desired outcomes and describe ways and means to achieve them allows for this alignment and flow of understanding.

A cascade must move in both directions

Water flows down but it is the  ‘pushing back’ provides this feedback cascade, where the real fate of change and realization resides is in recognition and ongoing dialogues. To cascade back, clarity or questioning needs a mechanism or process to return to the top. You gain alignment through this method of cascading both up and down organizations in deliberate ways. We are seeking this alignment constantly, it is the lightning rod that transmits the energy to gain fusion.

To encourage alignment, they need to be explicitly linked to key desired behaviors, determined by the needs of the individual organization. Alignment needs to equally map back to a high consistency in core values expected in practicing, as important. I would suggest a good innovation governance design significantly helps this. This is where building the innovation culture, the environment it works within and the climate that is encouraged prompts the dialogue, conversation, and engagement.

Underpinning this alignment within the Cascade’s design and identification, you equally build a ‘belief’ audit. Its aim is to uncover where alignment is achieved, misunderstood and equally highlights where it needs a better bridging mechanism and most importantly, where there is critical misalignment to be addressed at a higher level. This belief audit strengthens the choice-cascade model as it opens up the dialogue surrounding innovation and its strategic (or operational only) alignment.

How can innovation get squared away with strategy?

As I mentioned earlier it is getting innovation into this ‘choice mentality’ on where to play and what seems to be the real wins by providing as much understanding of the judgment of why it contributes to the strategic goals. You align it or ‘flag’ it. To get innovation to align you need to discuss a whole array of gaps. It needs dialogues, engagement and a clear, cohesive set of ‘shared’ objectives of what innovation can make a contribution and deliver a difference.

Clearly, if you lack this deep understanding of how the organization’s strategy was brought together, the thinking behind it, then innovation will often fall short in delivery, as it can’t have enough of the understanding to be aligned. Making hard choices is tied to aspirations of knowing where you want to place your bets, to win.

Often it is within the strategies lies the potential new spaces to play. Strategy informs innovation. It becomes the catalyst of where-to-play and how-to-win and with this, you are giving innovators a better chance to deliver back concepts for those hard choices to be made, designed around innovate concepts that align and feeds the strategic design with winning designs

Having a cascading model in place allows that essential ‘flow’ that connects innovation to strategy but more importantly becomes the connecting point for all within the organization to identify with and…..align too.

Contact me if you would like to learn more.

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