Building a Core into the Capabilities of Innovation

I think most would agree there is a continuing need is to build the management of innovation into a clear organizational capability, where innovation becomes a continuous effective innovation process. If you don’t agree, then I’d suggest you don’t bother to read on!

The struggle to date is that innovation remains hard to manage well; we strive to systematize it and then attempt to replicate any success we then have achieved. Often this does not work as the variables that make up innovation can be different for each innovation event or activity.

The make-up of innovation

I think we all recognize that innovation is made up of both tangible and intangible assets. It is the marriage of these two that makes innovation a unique capability to manage in well-structured ways. It is the people engaged in innovation activity that make it work.  Everything else, the process, structures, technologies and management systems are just the contributing enablers.

The important point though is successful innovation has core elements and processes regardless of industry, form, or type of innovation, we are pursuing.  Much of the difference though is in its varying degree’s based on these core elements.

Our search must be to find those core elements that make up the dynamic capabilities within our innovation activities to leverage and strengthen them. We need to build an organizations ability to innovation continuously, making it a sustaining competence.

We as organizations strive to achieve distinct competitive advantage, and innovation is one of those real contribution points this can do this. The need is to make the innovation capabilities and capacities a distinctive, not easy to copy, unique set. These are shaped by the context and content of innovation, the organizations position and its choice of evolutionary paths it has decided to take or needs to take.

This is an area of serious under-development at present, when you compare this with the continued focus on investing in physical assets or the consistent building of many other skills required within organizations. Yet innovation, the source of fresh growth remains significantly under-invested in, within the majority of organizations. This needs changing. Let me put forward my suggestions on why:

Shifting away from the accepted norm

Innovation understanding and building strength in competencies and capabilities takes an organization beyond the accepted norm of managing efficiency, just quality, being responsive and reacting with speed, all challenging within themselves. Innovation represents today’s competitive advantage statement that should be supported by these other requirements, they become subservient to allow new concepts to meet market needs and exceed customer expectancies.

Within any transition we must avoid dysfunctional consequences and think through why the existing systems and structures do have to ‘fold into’ new innovation based ones. We need to plan how to do this. Innovation cannot be buried in the established ways of doing things, it needs to lead and drive the engine for new growth and wealth creation. It can’t continue to take a back seat, it needs to take over the wheel.

Organizations need to shift from the one often still found today, of a higher focus on stability, efficiency and effectiveness, looking simply to maximize the short-term for profitability. This locks then into their current preoccupation with performing routines and formalised structures, as they strive to cut risk and manage the fear of the unknown.

The world is dealing with increasing complexity

The challenge though in today’s world is so different. It is so volatile, potentially disruptive and full of risk. Organizations are simply struggling to shed their clothes of the 20th century and find a way to smoothly manage into becoming more adaptable and agile in form. They are adjusting to offer consistent responses to instability in the most effective ways, to keep adapting to the consistent market challenges,and in so doing profiting from meeting that latest challenge or disruptive opportunity.  The problem is you simply can’t manage this smoothly, it will be highly disruptive as the organization re-equips itself and learns, often in the hardest way possible, through failure .

Innovation in itself is also a force of instability and we need to find ways to embrace much of its uncertainties by understanding its dynamics. We need to have a major shift in our organizational thinking, needed to find the appropriate new balance within those dual ‘tensions’ of ‘stability’ through efficiency, with its opposite, ‘change’ driven by innovation. It is these dynamic forces within the world we work that require us to respond by building that capacity for managing those ‘dynamic’ innovation capabilities, that today’s markets are requiring and organizations are needing to master.

The emphasis needs to point more to building dynamic innovation capabilities

Dynamic capabilities emphasise management capabilities and the inimitable (unique) combinations of resources that are constantly at work across all functions to make them distinctive and valuable.

Distinguishing innovation capabilities that are relevant are based on the type of knowledge they contain. Functional capabilities allow development of technical, practical knowledge. Integrative capabilities allow firms to absorb knowledge from external sources and this is where absorptive capacity and its structure comes into our required thinking. Innovation requires us to constantly learn, develop, mould and manage from multiple situations and challenges. This requires the integration of critical capabilities to successfully stimulate innovation for effective and improving performance.

Many of the identified resources in capabilities have some level of complementary, improving one triggers improvement in another. Equally ignoring one can impact negatively on others. So each component, on their own, have limited effect, it is the combination effect that generates the improving performance. Equally, the needs do change over time and you have to constantly ‘refresh, challenge and stimulate’ these, otherwise you can have core rigidly set in.

Integrating back or making anew

To this end I have produced a conceptual model of what I believe is the ‘make up’ for providing an ongoing innovation performance engine – the innovation fitness landscape and the dynamics of core capabilities. I felt it needed a dedicated website to be the ‘go to’ source of reference. It is a work-in-progress so please recognize this when you visit it here:

The need for all of us is recognize and embrace the need to build an organization-wide innovation capability, that should pervade all aspects of the organizations existence, forming its new core innovation value.


Shifting paradigms, refreezing the organization for innovation

I would like to continue on “unfreezing the middle” for innovation to really take hold and have a greater mometum in organizations.  Largely it is about our ability to unlock those ‘frozen innovation moments.’ To radically redesign the approach to innovation that today is constantly occurring in ‘discreet parcels’ of innovation activity within organizations. It is this ‘selective’ approach I certainly believe needs changing.

To achieve this I believe the middle manager in organizations needs to make some significant changes within their perspectives of ‘how’ innovation must fit within the design of their organization. This will allow them to achieve a fundamentally different organizational state than many seemingly need but perhaps are stuck with existing designs at present. Perhaps they are not seeing a different perscribed pathway to take- the innovation pathway suggested here and built upon here can serve as thoughts

Innovation in organizations does need fresh perspectives.

Jeffrey Phillips argues in his recent blog that “middle managers need new perspectives, new skills and new directions”. “We need to unfreeze the middle so the rest of the organization can adapt and change. Only then can innovation become what is needed it to be”- taken from his blog: “From smooth and steady to rough and ready”.  (

The question is how to unfreeze what we do today and relearn?

A good proven body of work has been built around psychologist Kurt Lewin’s suggested methodology that identifies the three stages of change that are still the basis of many approaches today- Unfreeze- Transition- Refreeze.

Much of the fear in innovation lies in ‘what is appropriate risk’ not just for the individual but for their organization. We are ‘’creatures’ that still want to go back to being safe, so we can feel we have a handle on events to experience that sense of control we always seeingly search for. We normally do not like discomfort except in ‘given’ intense periods when we are being challenged or threatened. The difficulty is you cannot maintain this ‘heighted’ threat, we seem to always (eventually) revert. What is needed is not to simply return to a former state but to replace that ‘state’ with a more appropriate platform of operating than before, built more on innovation for our future well-being and security.

The problem today, is that our world that we would love to be stable and be comfortable within, is being challenged more than ever. We need to find different positions of comfort to survive and thrive, innovation is in my opinion one of these. The problem is innovation in itself, can be uncertain and often risky. I would argue though that this can equally be a new position of stability, if you seek to master innovation and know its strengths and weaknesses intimately.

If we remain in our present states, then what I suggest as a ‘frozen state’ remains, we default back to what we know, based more on repeating patterns based on efficiency, effectiveness and doing what is necessary to manage on a daily basis. This, regrettably, is simply not good enough in today’s world. We need to change and in my last post I offered a number of approaches to structure this around change approaches (

We need to make some real, significant effort to push ourselves into learning to ‘master’ innovation. We require both ‘push’ methods to get this moving- the organization sets innovation learning as a distinct goal for instance- and we need ‘pull’ methods to keep any momentum going until it instils itself as the new norm we identify with and get a different sense of yes, comfort, within ourselves over innovations critical position.

Lewin suggests 3 steps to work through as a model: Unfreeze- Transition- Refreeze.

Firstly we need to unfreeze the existing core.

There are plenty of techniques to help in this that have innovation as the focal point. To name a few

  1. Burning platforms- create a crisis or agree there is a real crisis
  2. Challenge the comfort zone and shake things up
  3. Provide proof that situations being faced are changing- cold hard evidence
  4. Restructuring deliberately to force change into the system
  5. Offering fresh goals and visions for innovation as formal corporate objectives
  6. Provide opportunities to learn, to be trained in innovation techniques and methods
  7. Shift the rewarding metrics to outcomes based on innovation activities
  8. Recognize that many of the existing contributions made do make up the past, not so much the future of what is needed to be achieved, based on growth and wealth creation.

Then we have to make a set of transition points.

These are the fuel to keep the innovation engine nourished and moving in the new innovation pointing direction.

  1. Inspire the organization to achieve some remarkable new things to change the existing conceptions.
  2. Provide internal and external stimulus in coaching, inspiration talk’s, providing an innovation knowledge site.
  3. Set about an organised training and education programme for innovation understanding that this moves in steps of learning.
  4. Re-educate by exposing more within the organization to fresh alternative thinking, both with your industry or in other sectors that you can ‘take and apply’ appropriately.
  5. Offer open spaces, ‘safe’ environments to learn and experiment, to trial and sometimes fail but learn from these moments the positives and re-apply them.
  6. Establish innovation champions to be the support team to ‘go to’ for advice.
  7. Push beyond incremental innovation by slowing turning up the heat so it gets more visible and noticed. See my blog on different dominant designs of organizations
  8. Learning to take first baby steps, followed by improving the pace within innovation activities by using different experimental, prototyping, piloting methods and approaches. Grow the confidence and talk of the learning from any failures along the way to improve.

Lastly we look to refreeze the ‘state’ into a new innovative one.

We actually do need to  refreeze but in a more responsive, proactive, agile way – with clear innovation intent to achieve a end goal. For instance, the goal of being seen to have a set of clear competitive distinct positions, recognized and acknowledged both internally and externally parties and then, measured in clear ways that added value that is seen in results, not just talked about as a ‘future promise’ based on present planned activities.

  1. We need to burn any bridges to ensure there is no way back to the old ways, where innovation was talked about but not enacted upon
  2. Make sure you achieve the ‘show me the money moment’- your evidence stream of innovation activity and success.
  3. Keep the focus on being ‘relentless’ and focusing on the future and why innovation is an important part of this in increased activity and performance
  4. Keep returning to the ‘rationalization’ of this so each action is a validation of a path being travelled which encourages certain actions.
  5. Make sure rewards are aligned to the new ‘innovation’ way, place rewards into the mid-term as much as the short term, often called golden handcuffs but valid in institutionalizing change through innovation.
  6. Build all the efforts over time into the very social fabric of the organization and make the middle manager responsible for engineering and designing the innovation mantle needed to be worn by all.

Passing through the three learning stages

Unlocking the innovating potential within organizations always needs to pass through different learning stages. The middle manager lies at the core. Focus on this as your ‘unlocking’ point and establishing a way to build in the necessary competencies and capabilities in a well thought through innovation development programme and process surely can allow innovation to take hold?

Until we approach innovation in a clear, methodical learning way, innovation, that deep capacity for innovation, will never fully ‘take hold’ in organizations as the middle of the core remains frozen in the past of efficency and effectiveness only. We do need to change the innovation middle core.

Unfreezing the middle, seeing a different innovating prospective

This past week we had a #innochat tweet session( around Jeffrey Phillip’s book “Relentless Innovation”( ). The chat was framed around a set of questions here ( ) but basically the premise of Jeffrey’s thinking was “can it be possible to shift from business as usual (BAU) to innovation business as usual”?

He suggests that one of the most significant challenges for innovation is the fact that many firms have spent years, if not decades, creating business models and operating processes that are exceptionally efficient and effective but neglect the essential part that innovation plays.

Equally the middle manager is so focused on the delivery of short term results through effective organization and pursuing efficiencies they have little ‘slack’ within the system to learn and build innovation into it.

I would possibly argue the very people that we are expecting to manage the ‘dynamics’ within organizations, the Middle Managers, are seeking the very opposite- doing everything possible to keep it as stable and consistent as it can be.

So how can this change?

Change is the word. If you accept the premise of BAU and Middle Managers holding back innovation, then we need to contemplate change, a more radical agenda of change. Jeffrey in his book goes some of the way in offering up different solutions to this but I think we should think deeper and harder, around a fully fledged innovation change management programme. Let me offer some thoughts.

How can we move the needle and tilt it more towards innovation? I can think of five immediate ones  to contribute to this debate that would significantly advance the change called for in Jeffrey’s book.

1.       Core competences need to be changed

Recognizing the middle manager holds the organization together, they are the glue that connects the organization with the leadership and enable the ‘forces’ to flow. Lets turn their existing core competencies on their head. The mix of primary, critical and core capabilities that are the measuring point for the MM’s new core competency set.

  • Primary becomes the base not the pinnacle  . What they do in efficiency and effectiveness remains as their primary capability- you don’t alter this, it is too engrained. This can only change over time and through their inner awareness and recognition that innovation needs to be embedded, alongside the existing ‘fixation’ on efficiency and effectiveness. Don’t try to radically change, make progressive step changes. Efficiency and effectiveness clearly remains the inventory repertoire of solid capabilities so as you set about to build a new platform, based on innovation, it layers and interlocks.
  • You target selected critical capabilities to learn and explore. You provide the MM a clarity of the new and emerging critical capabilities they need to build up. These are the capabilities that will provide the greatest impact for competitive advantage, not internal but external in all its orientation.
  • At the top of the pyramid is the core capabilities they need to have. This cluster of capabilities is centred on the critical capabilities to make innovation main stream, to be a daily part of their thinking, their make-up, their intent to ensure happens. These differ according to the role, area of focus and contribution.

2.  We need to focus the middle manager on different learning concepts

Peter Senge comes to mind for rethinking his work for establishing an innovation learning organization. His five main characteristics are system thinking, personal mastery, mental models, a shared vision and team learning. In (brief) summary these are:

  • Systems thinking. The idea is to introduce a distinct innovation system thinking approach as a conceptual framework that allows people to study innovation as bounded objects that make up the innovation ecosystem, that needs to be in place within their organization. Overtime it will help measure the performance of the organization as a whole, and of its various components, and the organization rewards on the ‘whole’ not on selected parts. This shifts the ground for middle managers to manage within.
  •  Personal mastery. The commitment by an individual to the process of learning is known as personal mastery. This is their part of the core capabilities they need  to be seen as making a direct contributino to the competitive advantage the organization believes is its set of goals. The workforce can learn these more quickly once identified, and apply them, so it is therefore important to develop a culture where personal mastery is practiced in daily life, based on clear capabilities needed to be practised.
  • Mental models. The assumptions held by individuals and organizations are called mental models and these are seemingly, stuck more in the efficiency and effectiveness ones at present. To become a learning organization, these models must be challenged. We have to guard against the individuals and middle managers that tend to espouse theories, which are what they intend to follow, and theories-in-use, which are all what they actually do. Also over time we must shift the organisations ‘memories’ which preserve certain behaviours, norms and values. Existing unwanted values need to be discarded in a process called ‘unlearning’ and allow time for new learning and maximised through applying ‘triple loop learning.’
  • Shared vision. The development of a shared vision on the place that innovation occupies. It becomes important in motivating the staff to learn, to relate too, to create those essential common identities of the value of innovation’s contribution and their distinct contributing part in this. This sharing and identity gives real focus and energy for learning.
  •  Team learning. The accumulation of individual learning constitutes the last aspect, into team learning. The value of the middle manager in bringing people and their contributions together is vital, this is done in efficient and effective ways but also in increasing experimentation to understand and find the ones that often just seem to work . This needs structuring  for encouraging boundary crossing and openness for both shared meaning, and shared understanding.

3. Working the innovation learning ‘muscles’ through the three learning loops

So in our new learning we recognize the value of the three learning loops- the first loop, the single one is reinforcing what we do, whereas the second loop or double loop is learning through increased insights what we can do, what is possible, what and who can contribute to ‘our’ advancement of innovation in establishing competitive advantage in these two way, increasingly open exchanges.

The third loop is the real learning loop- the one where innovation takes hold, where the establishing principles, capabilities and competencies goes beyond insight and discovery- the beliefs in what we should be- our triple learning set of loops. Moving from a certain static, predictable level to a more dynamic one where innovation thrives. This is the multiple conversation loop, built on enquiry, one feeding off another, a more open (innovation) approach and allowing these to evolve, often in seemingly unstructured ways.

One of the best visuals for reinforcing the loops is shown below. Again it is by Peter Senge and I use it a lot in any change programme. It is where you are heading too for innovation to become part of the BAU or in Jeffrey’s parlance of “innovation business as usual”

Reinforcing loops for innovation change management results

So the middle manager has to think through a new agenda for innovation change and the organization has to ‘fully’ provide the necessary support and structure for them to move towards this (radical) change in their managing within the middle.

4.       My forth contribution is applying a coaching framework

I wrote about this in a recent blog ( ) on “the value of having an innovation coach”. In this I offered the four stages we all go through in changing behaviours that I really believe can be applied here specifically.

  • Unconscious Incompetence– this is often a self reflection stage where the person, in our case the middle manager, reflects and draw out areas of incomplete knowledge on innovation. These become the agenda to learn about and need organization support.
  • Conscious Incompetence– From these reflections you gain insights, you begin to explore tested tools and techniques, you begin to frame new references that are relevant, you begin to explore and experiment, the middle manager encourages others within the organization to do the same. They look consciously  for growing confirmation that it has real value in contributing to advancing innovation towards competitive advantage.
  • Conscious Competence– As you begin to ‘grasp’ differences this enables experiences to build up so a middle manager can do what he is good at, look at the alternatives with a growing confidence and some ‘matching’ begins to occur and you see an emerging path for innovation action beginning to emerge from this.
  • Unconscious competence– the final part where the impact of what has been learnt, understood, investigated and explored has a real personal impact. It seeps into the make-up of the person and changes there ‘going forward’ behaviour. These comprehend the value of  innovation meaning differently than their original perspective and build their personal core competency levels. These become their clustering points of contribution and expertise as the way they will manage innovation going forward as the increasing value ‘gels’ for them and it integrates more and more into the existing efficiency and effectiveness mind set to move BAU into Innovation BAU .

5. Lastly I still enjoy using the ADKAR methodology of change

In any change we pass through different aspects, the building blocks for successfully navigating any change. For instilling innovation as part and parcel of the day-to-day, working within an organization and ‘radiating’ from the middle manager this is achieved, but only over time and in clear steps.

The ADKAR methodology was created by Prosci Research back in the nineties. Effective management of the people dimension of change requires managing five key goals that form the basis of the ADKAR model .

ADKAR is simply the acronym for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. These are the elements of the the most fundamental requirements for anyone to succeed and maintain change. Once you identify the first weak element, you have identified the resistance to change. Therefore, these elements cannot be reordered or skipped. You need to move from one to the next once understanding has been fully established along the ADKAR escalating model .

  • Awareness of the need to change
  • Desire to participate and support the change
  • Knowledge of how to change (and what the change looks like)
  • Ability to implement the change on a day-to-day basis
  • Reinforcement to keep the change in place

This model tries to attack the root of the resistance, in this case establishing innovation within the day-to-day working model of the organization. What really gives this model the edge is its emphasis on individual change and each middle manager has different needs, innovation competencies and understanding to learn to embed in them, the change needed. Change is often seen very differently, person to person.

So these are my 5 thoughts to contribute to embedding innovation into business as usual.

Until we approach innovation in a clear, methodical learning way, it will never fully ‘take hold’. Building innovation capabilities and competencies is where I hang my advisory hat- no shame in that- and we need to recognize the value of having a more structured approach to tackling this. Otherwise we all remain frozen in perspectives (personal), in implementing ‘parcels’ of innovation skills that is not ensuring innovation has a holistic approach from vision, through mission into its delivery. We suffer far too many ‘frozen innovation moments’ .