Innovation System Thinking on a Sunday! What, no roast or glass of wine? Later.

We all spend our Sundays in different ways. Some spend it recovering from the Saturday night, other spend large chunks of the day traveling to meet up with friends or family. Others go off to the gym, jog, take a run, or simply enjoy a day of pursuing something differently from their working week. We do different things. Mine is usually a mix of exploring and researching around innovation in the morning, a couple of hours at the gym, a walk to finish off and then a mixture of enjoying a nice home-cooked meal and a relaxing evening.

That part of the day spent on innovation, researching and reading, tends to partly stimulate my week ahead in different ways, as I try to reinforce what I’ve learned by applying this to the work gathered around me at that point in time. I am looking to see how it does help shape and influence it, it ‘fuels’ the coming-in week in some part. Of course, this greatly depends on what I am working on, for others and, for myself. Some weeks I just don’t find the opportunity to apply it, so that “Sunday thinking” sits there for another day or week, or even months before I revisit it or connect it back up.

What started me on a given innovation “tack” was that for a long time I have seen an awful lot of opinions, solutions, concepts, that have been breaking down innovation into its many parts. The practice of lean thinking, design thinking, visual thinking has increasingly started to dominate our “innovation thinking.” We keep breaking down innovation into its parts, we continue to fail to build this back up into a whole system approach, simply because we don’t understand the whole innovation system and how it all interconnects. We, in general, all seem to remain constantly disappointed at the end results of our innovation efforts. In some ways, all this new learning or applying novel solutions that we are adapting to the different parts are often just triggering knock-on consequences that still consign innovation outcomes as a failure. It must continue to frustrate each of us, if the final outcomes, if out of our hands, end up as disappointing even though we all feel we are making progress in improving innovation. We must think differently and that might mean whole innovation system thinking.

We, in general, all seem to remain constantly disappointed at the end results of our innovation efforts. In some ways, all this new learning, or applying novel solutions that we are adapting to the different parts, are often just triggering knock-on consequences that still consign innovation outcomes as a failure. It must continue to frustrate each of us, if the final outcomes, often out of our hands, end up as disappointing, even though we all feel we are making progress in improving innovation. We must think differently and that might mean whole innovation system thinking.

Going back and reminding myself

So this Sunday I went back to a range of concepts that all have a critical impact on the innovation process, ones that many of the present popular thinking parts only trigger, a specific part of the innovation system for incremental improvement, even if it is dramatic for one person or a team exposed to it. It so often does not yield the impact we require from innovation; successful outcomes that accelerate growth or make for substantial change.

So where was I going this Sunday morning? These have included (eye-roll please) the dynamics capabilities within the innovation system, where the work of David Teece, for example, is exploring the theory. I know wretched theory on a Sunday or any day come to think of it, but it does inform.

Teece’s concept of dynamic capabilities is a theory about the source of corporate agility: the capacity (1) to sense and shape opportunities and threats, (2) to seize opportunities by mobilizing your resources to capture new value from those opportunities, and (3) to maintain competitiveness through enhancing, combining, protecting, and, when necessary, re-configuring the business enterprise’s intangible and tangible assets, by transforming them for continuous renewal. This makes organizations dynamic. It is the dynamics of the innovation system that can make it transformational.

 Then I went into System Thinking.

Our quest should be finding answers to why innovation is often failing to deliver on our expectations and needs. So for me “System thinking for Innovation, as a whole” should be grabbing more of our attention. Yet we seem not to get our heads around this “whole” part so we set about redesigning the parts. Nothing wrong with that, it has lots of moving, sometimes unique parts, improvements are certainly happening, replacing past approaches but they still remain discreet parts but overall innovation performance, does it improve?

System thinking looks at ALL the interacting parts, their interdependence and how one part fits and reacts with another. We get caught up in the linear progression of one part and not considering enough the reinforcing loops or balancing the loops to foster stability or understand impact across the wider system. Actually, we are potentially increasing its complexity and volatility, pushing this down the line, to somewhere that is not capable of absorbing this “great piece of thinking” and translating it into the outcome expected, even when we did the initial work or visualizing. We always need to translate what we do, for others to pick up with and turn this into something better.

If we don’t have a well-understood view of the whole system of the innovation design, it does not matter how many separate parts we design or apply, the end result is this either ends up the same (disappointing), poorer, as it replaces something we failed to improve what was existing from the end-users perspective, or managed some increased ‘spike’ that needs constantly improving upon to get finally right. Constant improvement often makes up much of a business, as it continually improves on its offering, especially as technology is continually changing, allowing us to apply what we are learning and as we plug into the feedback we are getting from the market but these reinforce the incremental improvements not change the market or product dynamics as much as we often want

Then we have system imbalance to contend with in innovation.

So we have plenty of dynamics and system thinking improvements, so why do we need to spoil a perfectly good Sunday looking deeper and questioning? Well, it’s all about system imbalance. System imbalance? Yes, a system imbalance in what we are doing in our innovation work.We come back to the point until we connect up the whole innovation system we are just pushing our piece of efficiency into someone else’s in-efficiency, as we have not integrated or interconnected the whole, we just have compounded more independent parts.Pushed more work (or rework) off to somewhere else. It continually keeps innovation as inefficient and less effective. Everything should be connected, all the subsystems should connect.

Today we have systems for design, ideas, portfolio management, for research, for evaluation, for pipeline management, all operating in their ‘silo’ of activity. If we fail to understand the relationships and the connections between them all we are having a real difficulty to optimise the whole innovation system. Our focus should become far more focused on achieving better interconnection and interdependence.

Then as the Gym beckons, I start picking up on System Dynamics

So system thinking needs a greater area of our focus within the innovation system. We need to understand reoccurring patterns that constrain us. This begins to take we into System Dynamics. Do you remember the brilliant book of Peter Senge: The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization”. This book needs dusting down, searching out, purchasing as essential reading, as it gives us some more clues on System thinking as many of our problems are reoccurring ones. It might become a way to understand the reasons we lack an interconnected innovation system.

Just take a look, step back, before you have opened that special bottle of wine for Sunday or you go off and do what all sane people should be doing on a sunny Sunday, getting out and enjoying the day. I’m heading out the door mighty soon after this ‘outpouring’ but I’m asking you to think about all those reoccurring bad patterns we have fallen into, around innovation

Take a look at the eight system archetypes, outlined here by Jorge Taborga in a piece on system archetypes and their application.

Eight systems archetypes and their storylines

The eight, most common systems archetypes are: 

  1. Fixes that Fail—A solution is rapidly implemented to address the symptoms of an urgent problem. This quick fix sets into motion unintended consequences that are not evident at first but end-up adding to the symptoms.
  2. Shifting the Burden—A problem symptom is addressed by a short-term and a fundamental solution.  The short-term solution produces side effects affecting the fundamental solution.  As this occurs, the system’s attention shifts to the short-term solution or to the side effects.
  3. Limits to Success—A given effort initially generates positive performance.  However, over time the effort reaches a constraint that slows down the overall performance no matter how much energy is applied.
  4. Drifting Goals—As a gap between goal and actual performance is realized, the conscious decision is to lower the goal.  The effect of this decision is a gradual decline in the system performance.
  5. Growth and UnderinvestmentGrowth approaches a limit potentially avoidable with investments in capacity.  However, a decision is made to not invest resulting in performance degradation which results in the decline in demand validating the decision not to invest.
  6. Success to the Successful—Two or more efforts compete for the same finite resources.  The more successful effort gets a disproportionately larger allocation of the resources to the detriment of the others.
  7. Escalation—Parties take mutually threatening actions which escalate their retaliation attempting to “one-up” each other.
  8. The tragedy of the Commons—Multiple parties enjoying the benefits of a common resource do not pay attention to the effects they are having on the common resource.  Eventually, this resource is exhausted resulting in the shutdown of the activities of all parties in the system.

Now apply these to why innovation often fails, they constrain what we do. We get unwanted results due to a specific set of behaviors. If we start looking through these archetypes as lenses we might begin to ‘flesh out’ the needs to think through when we look at a whole system design for innovation. We are testing what we do, to see if it passes through this lens. If we can change individual behavior and keep coming back to improving the ‘whole’ design needed for innovation we do get to connect it all up.

So my Sunday morning: has it been well spent or not?

In this limited time I had on this Sunday, I have triggered my thinking into Dynamics of Innovation, System Thinking, System Dynamics and System Archetypes and recognizing we have to look for more interaction and interdependence within any innovation work we do. We need to take our innovation activities out, recognizing consequences and attempting to manage the whole design.

So where does that take me or innovation? Firstly, I’m off to the Gym, I think I need to work off a few more pounds of newly gained brain ‘fat’ in my (limited) understanding. I need to deepen my thinking around all these areas as I know, no actually I am convinced until we map the whole innovation system, we are just moving the pieces around and I just can’t see this as optimizing it, it is simply making innovation more complex and disappointing. It does not need to be.

Complex adaptive systems relate to innovation, are yet another story that I attempted some time back to quantify, actually back in 2012 and, yes, it still sits here in my pile of things to connect up as part of this integrated system we require for innovation

Now back to a more normal Sunday…….





One thought on “Innovation System Thinking on a Sunday! What, no roast or glass of wine? Later.

  1. Hi Paul. I am a PhD student at Purdue University working in a lab that is attempting to understand innovation from a systems lens. We conduct experiments which can verify some of the ideas mentioned her. Do get in touch if you would like to. Thanks.


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