Preparing Ourselves for Innovation Standards

There has been  going on for a good few years, the continued debate around finding and adopting a set of standards for innovation. I blow a little hot and cold on this, this is not dependent on the time of day but the very “force” that is pushing any agenda along on this. Far, far too much of those that push for standards have often very narrow agenda’s, where this fits their commercial purpose but often you gain that feeling that these are not as aligned to the broader innovation communities as they should be.

There are two camps- the ones that relentlessly drive towards standards and those looking to have a more “open” view looking to ‘simply’ achieve a common language.

Are standards the real drivers of innovation?

There are seemingly many ways to innovate and is it just a little simplistic to standardise innovation and reduce it down to a set of basic common parts? Innovation comes more from evolution, revolution, radical and disruptive forces being applied, will these benefit from having innovation standards or be constrained. Would ‘standards’ be like the basic diploma like an architect for instance, who is taught the theory of the basic principles but who can see well beyond and challenges those existing boundaries and accepted norms, and in so doing pushes design into a new future but still draws down from this their initial ‘qualification?’

Innovation often arrives from the need to rapidly respond to crisis, it can need to bridge and move across disciplines and concepts, it might emerge from the intersection of ideas, concepts and cultures ( The Medici Effect reference) or it can draw from business, science, art and politics. How do you attempt to standardise, let alone capture for these?

Do standards get simply boiled down to that “de-facto” factor that we all have to have to ‘qualify’ for procurement tendering, being able to attract funding or just being that piece of paper to get past the gate-keeper of the high morals and necessary standards? Do they draw in more, or exclude the best? Do they level the playing field or simply reduce the surface to one where it becomes muddy and no one can effectively play upon? Does it trigger a whole new industry of certifiers encouraged by the state or funded by the EU to establish “standards” at a cost? When they become mandated what really happens?

Clearly standard setting is a dry affair, it becomes caught up in technical issues, it gets bogged down in these ‘vested’ interests yet standards do have a potentially strategic importance to advance innovation beyond its present ad hoc organization.

Today innovation is caught in a silo itself

Today, innovation is locked in silo’s, it operates to support individuals not the broader community. The label can often be attached “buyer beware”. Today anyone can state they are the authority on either a model, concept, process etc.

My innovating friend Jeffrey Phillips suggests “there are a lot of people jumping on the (innovation) bandwagon selling the latest snake-oil to profit from a lot of (this) confusion”. He argues “innovation is still part black art” and full of ambiguity. He suggests standards move from “folk wisdom to wild claims to organized documented fact.” Finally Jeffrey suggest “we can no longer guess at whether or not we make profit” and “all good thinking can be codified so we can provide clarity of work”. Do you agree? He believes it is incumbent on innovation practitioners to begin to agree on standard innovation.

The other side of the argument lies in innovation having just a common language

Creating a common language, perhaps an open sourced taxonomy to start with, will unite the many stakeholders. Without a common language emerging perhaps innovation eventually becomes abandoned. The current disagreements, individual interpretations often have ego’s caught up in the stakes. There are a good number of present day innovation guru’s that might need to go back and relearn innovation and where it presently is and possibly heading.

We do have more unstructured innovation knowledge than structured to resolve many issues surrounding innovation. Often advice glosses over the understanding the individual context and applies those ‘broad brush’ strokes to anyone who cares to listen.

It is also true that innovation practitioners often chose to ignore or not enquire deeply enough about the circumstances or reasons why innovation is needed, they simply apply their standard solutions and often clients are caught up in the hurry to move on.

We are often also caught up in a certain “fixation”, in certain dogma’s, mindsets and biases that have negative consequences. The expert plays on the very ambiguity suggested earlier because often the knowledge is so unstructured. Unstructured knowledge leads to unstructured interactions that then leads to less than ideal end results, more disappointment than enlightenment. Innovation, I contend, is still unstructured knowledge waiting to be reorganized to the ‘greater benefit’.

So we should ‘rush’ to seeking out a common language? A common language for innovation promises greater depth in meaningful collaborations

Renee Hopkins stated recently she remains convinced that one of the biggest impediments to innovation and collaboration is this lack of common language to describe what we are doing. She suggests it will remain “slippery and mysterious concepts as long as we don’t use the same terms the same way”.  She doubts though that “we will all simply use language in a consistent way observing common definitions, since that would be contrary to the messy evolution that is language”

So are we doomed to wallow in the here and now of individual interpretations of innovation meaning and not feel we need to break out of this pit of frustrations, inefficiency and misunderstandings associated today with innovation?

I believe we should be optimistic and embrace both camps in parallel

We have a choice, we stay still and innovation simply dies out as a real force and morphs into a variety of different butterflies to light up our world going forward or it becomes the homing beacon for wealth and creation it is suggested that it can be. To achieve this it does need to be ‘nailed down’ to find solid ground that all can feel is sturdy and unshakeable to begin to build stronger structures upon.

Innovation ‘speaks’ of future survival but it needs a more robust framework that does deliver on that promise of being sustainable, repeatable, having long-term structures that drive understanding of where to go to begin to discover competitiveness and success. We do need to obtain some level of systematic management in all aspects to foster lasting innovation capabilities. This should be a combined language / action framework.

The emerging route that has been quietly travelled

In the EU, since 2008 there has been a constant level of activity around developing a consensus towards standards for innovation. Standards need to be consensus built, bottom-up structure. It needs to bring together all interested parties and they are often highly diverse. Yet a standard really is only a technical document designed to be uses as a rule, a guideline or a set of common definitions. It attempts to offer repeatable ways of doing something.

Within the EU there has been a technical committee working away under its reference of CEN / TC 389 for Innovation Management. They are developing standards under Innovation Management that covers in separate documents: creativity management,, innovation management assessments, innovation thinking, intellectual property management, strategic intelligence management and finally collaborative management. All of these are scheduled for very early in 2014.

There is one under drafting, I heard actually finished, waiting for sign off to be released in the next few months that covers Innovation Management- the innovation management system. Its project reference is FprCEN/TS 16555-1.

The EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation Màire Geoghegan-Quinn has promised to give this her full attention in 2013.

My closing thoughts and arguments at this time

In May 2011 I wrote a piece on this site under “My arguments for a common framework needed for innovation management” which you can view here http://tinyurl.com/8lh3jop and further strengthened the call with another piece recently “Identification sits at the core of innovation”, see here http://tinyurl.com/9ovekl2 . Both appeal for advancement, they push for solutions, we are crying out for these.

So I am certainly looking forward to the first release of a standard according to the EU. I’m not sure if I’m holding my breath in the greatest anticipation but I would just simply say “let the debate really begin” as there are so many benefits in creating both a common language within and alongside an innovation set of standards – it can be then built upon.

Like the Architect understanding the standard basics, they are wanting to push out and design, challenging the community, demanding better materials, better processes and application and this is the very time where I feel innovation desperately is in need of this fresh momentum. We can build far, far more from commonality than division.

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Identification sits at the core of innovation

There are so many aspects to get right in innovation. These can be ensuring the culture, climate and environment for innovation are working well, it could mean setting up processes, well-designed procedures and structures, it can be providing innovation governance. Each part has a vital part to play in being combined for innovation, so it can function but these are not the core. Our identification with innovation is that core.

The core lies in the scope and definitions, the context that innovation is set and the identification with these. How often do organizations fail because they rushed into innovation, along those classic lines of: “let’s experiment and learn as we go” as their mentality.  We fail because we don’t take the necessary time to examine the significant differences in innovation terminology, in the different ways or types of innovation, in gaining from ‘evidence based’ research and experimentation. What we expect to see from our day-to-day work seems not to apply to our innovation selection criteria. We experiment indiscriminately, poking a stick around the opportunity haystack looking for that elusive ‘golden’ needle.

Random selection and discarding practices

Organizations have been randomly selecting, then discarding practices constantly, in a never-ending search of more of other organizations best practices, without understanding what these truly entail, or what this truly requires in commitment. No wonder innovation continues to receive a bad ‘rap’ when you often have the innovation blind, leading the blind. There are so many facets within innovation that need a much deeper, extensive understanding that is so often lacking. We love to collect or synthesise and then quickly dismiss what doesn’t work, dispensing with some valuable utility on the way, as we move onto the next ‘complete’ package. Then the cycle repeats itself, perhaps not immediately but in its quiet eroding way that throws innovation even more into question and doubt.

Lost identities, lost opportunities

We have lost our identification, yet this one word strikes at the core of innovation as the essential to have. Everything we do should have an overly binding context to it. If we don’t place innovation within its appropriate framework we fail to contextualize our activities, the intended fit, which offers the real relationship we need. We need to fit our work to the strategic goals.  If this is simply missing then innovation is likely misfiring, or not hitting the targets because it is scatter-gun in approach and its interpretation.

Innovation cries out for an integrated innovation framework.

Offering an integrated innovation framework is the place where we can gain the necessary identification. It is central to what we should be doing; it establishes the boundaries within which innovation should take place. This is the one essential place for leadership engagement. If innovation is never placed in its context, then how do we expect the results often asked for by the CEO? Innovation is adrift, it is actually unsupported, and we don’t achieve that precious identification.

If we don’t  have provided that innovation framework, we leap into innovation, often in good faith, as asked, so we become often hyper-active as we all find our own ways forward. Eventually we stumble along and finally work out our own language and understanding of what innovation means, different to even the persons sitting at the next desk. Just take a look at all the different definitions of innovation you will find, just in one large organization alone. This lack of a clear context is so harmful we add further unnecessary complexity and over time frustrate the organization and confuse the majority.

People disconnect because they lack what is needed to connect! They continue to work hard, often very hard, but sometimes never truly understanding how their tasks and roles contribute to the strategic direction. We need to make sure each person makes their specific connections to an integrated approach for themselves. To achieve these connections you need a shared understanding, a common framework and a common language, to reduce the mental traps and misunderstandings of what innovation is individually meaning. We need everyone to try to get onto the same page.

Educating formulates the understanding

Educating, informing, clarifying constantly simply helps formulate understanding and aids execution. We need to find ways to communicate a common language, a common way to frame the needs expected from innovation.  That needs to come from the top of organizations and then built up by a growing contribution from all as they become engaged. If you can achieve this, you can move to a growing consensus but this takes time. You can eventually achieve a common identity that begins to move ‘mountains’ through collective achievement, that is both distinctive and unique to your organization. A uniqueness that can never be copied, perhaps just admired or envied.

CEO’s that are seen to be successful achieve connections, what is often called that emotional connection through describing the context, setting the values and vision driven criteria and by often pushing the organization towards ‘impossible goals’. It is amazing how this brings alignment as long as it is consistent, constant in its messages and widely shared and understood. Then the leadership makes it their business to position individuals and the decisions over what, where, when and how in the context of this, to allow them to make their decisions, as individuals and within their teams. Innovation activity becomes ‘orchestrated’ not micro-managed.

The value of the middle makes for the new connectors we need.

Middle managers tasks should be increasingly become more those of connectors and facilitators, not the guardians and gatekeepers for the decision makers.  Their work should include the encouragement that everyone is engaged in innovation work, for each person to constantly go back and check against this integrated innovation framework to work out their place to relate to this and become aligned. The middle manager carries through connection and identification.

Through this new work they achieve this ‘shared understanding’ or set about correcting any areas of concern through their own dialogues with senior managers of where any shifts have taken place or seem in conflict with the understanding. This is identification again, for it lies at the core of innovation. Making sure everyone has a ‘sight-line’ and identification into this innovation framework so they stay well-connected. Communication and relationships becomes the key.

Today we are living in a world of knowledge-intensive innovation

To build distinctive competences for sustaining those often elusive competitive advantages, is very much context specific. We need to provide learning events as competence is actually firmly embedded in the specific context in which it is created. If an organization lacks that context of innovation then how can it acquire the appropriate knowledge to give it any advantage? If the CEO and his leadership team can’t articulate the context, then they can’t expect winning at the innovation game. It is not their people failing to deliver innovation, it is them, as leaders, failing to deliver this integrated innovation framework where context sits and identification is gained to seek out knowledge-specifics needed.

Until the CEO identifies with his core role in innovation, the organization remains rudderless.  If he can’t supply what is expected, then it is more than likely the corporate strategy will be ignored, as it has not been placed in its appropriate context.  It fails because it is not communicate in ways that can be understood, it lacks personal identification.

Without the appropriate identification of the opportunities seen for growth not communicated then how can the right innovation be applied? Innovation stays disconnected to strategy. It is arbitrary based on interpretation and choice designated down the organization hoping it aligns. Context set in a clear framework for innovation changes that. It gives innovation a real chance to contribute.

Boundaries and Freedom

How we harness our innovation activity does not need the advocating of tighter controls, it needs articulating the potential and releasing people by underpinning how that will be managed through innovations organization. Ideally this can come through having a clear governance structure and providing the right environment that is needed, so as to allow others to do the work that needs to get done and see how they contribute in meaningful ways. Management’s dictates or rules should not stand in the way, they should be swept aside.  What should be put in that critical space is a common set of agreed organization definitions, a real clarity made up of what connects and why and then ensuring the resources are made available to achieve the innovation ‘called for’. This calls for a focused yet adaptive and flexible leadership, that constantly looks to engage and provides the clarity necessary within a corporate  innovation framework that can cascade down the organization. Leaders need to actively ensure through clear designation that everything is in place for all the appropriate conversations, and is equally ready and listening to the new ‘pulse’ of innovation, they are generating from this new intensity of focus.

Identification becomes the core to innovation

Eventually with enough of this leadership engagement, constantly being articulated and framed for the challenges identified, there emerges a common consensus and organizational language around innovation and its intent. It connects and gains both organization and personal identification and this ‘identification’ sits at the core of innovation.

We get closer to achieving a consistent, more vibrant innovation as it becomes more routine and embedded, for it becomes increasingly linked to everyone’s goals, a certain oneness and because of this, it is sustaining. We identify as we understand what our contribution will be, then the leadership has done its primary job, its aligned innovation purpose to the goals, by laying out the parameters to achieve this.