Are our organizations ossifying their innovation?

Innovate or dieThe balance between risk mitigation and being equipped for risk readiness is still an ongoing struggle to balance for most organizations.

There is still a continued reluctance for exploring new radical innovation opportunities and although organizations ‘talk’ growth, they continue to struggle in achieving it through new innovation.

The incremental commitments to innovation still rule the day to move growth along. Until a new sustaining confidence returns to our economies, risk mitigation dominates as markets continue to be more volatile and unreliable in predictive data and executive sentiment remains cautious.

Our organizations are looking for a higher certainty of return and seek sometimes endless validation and justification before they commit, even to small incremental changes. It is no wonder incremental innovation dominates in our innovation decisions; it is where reality sits for many. Are we heading off in a bad innovation direction?

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There are no easy innovation answers.

Inspiration and InnovationIn response to a recent post of mine, Tobias Stapf on the Social Innovation Europe LinkedIn networking group, pointed me to a really good report “Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail” and I really have appreciate it. I wanted to draw out some useful learning from this report and useful reminders here in this post that there is no easy answers in innovation, social or business related.

The report outlines the difficulties of enabling innovation in social sector organizations. In this review the authors undertook exploring what enables organization capacity for continuous innovation in established social sector organizations, that operate at an efficient scale, delivering products and services.

Three oversights that conflict in working in the social innovation area

First, innovation is often perceived as a development shortcut where pushing innovation is often at the expense of strengthening more routine activities, which this ‘push’ might actually destroy rather than create value.

Second, social sector innovation has little external impact to show when it is enacted in unpredictable environments. Proven innovation can often fail when transferred to a different context and there is equally an undervaluing of the positive internal learning impact that comes from these ‘failed’ innovations.

Third, the power of negative organizational factors, such as bad leadership, dysfunctional teams and overambitious production goals as examples, makes the innovation task extremely difficult to succeed in difficult social conditions

This report helped me rethink the value of incremental in social innovation

I have been constantly complaining about incremental innovation needs to become more radical, more disruptive, more breakthroughs and what this report provides is a totally different slant on incremental innovation.

Also I have talked often about the knowing of the context of innovation and this report offers a brilliant reminder of this.

Over-rating the Value of Innovation.

Value PropositionThe report offers this thought within social innovation: “Most of the value that established social sector organizations create comes from their core, routine activities perfected over time”. It is the efficiency being produced in providing standard products and services is the place that creates tremendous value, particularly in places of widespread poverty.

The organizations involved have found a working model in a particular context requires predictable, incremental improvements and lots of them to generate superior outcomes over time.

The authors cite the Aravind Eye Care Hospital for their focus on continuous improvement of practices and investing any profits in building additional capacity. It is the dedication to standardization that drives operational productivity. They spend their time eliminating variation to build constantly capacity to make an impact at an increasing scale.

The important point here is “constantly building capacity to make an impact at an increasing scale” and it is in finding the contextual linkages is where incremental has its greatest value potential.

Perhaps I push for different types of innovation within business far too hard and this observation might argue for a better viewpoint on the pursuit for incremental innovation. It brings my own pendulum into a better position perhaps of valuing incremental improvements?

A few ‘call out’ points here

  • “Unpredictable innovation activities always compete with predictable core routines for scarce resources.”
  • “Poverty-related or persistent problems may not need innovation solutions but rather committed long-term engagements that enable steady and less risky progress”.
  • “Innovation is not triggered by change but progress and impact may come from dedication and routine work” and that this can challenge the argument for more innovation.

Recognizing the value of productive innovation.

The report uses as their innovation type “productive social innovation” and argues the need to rely heavily on trial and error and constant organizational learning to make this truly productive. To yield improving results where scale is critical.

The value of learning from failed innovation.

Power of LearningIn the world of complex social issues the innovation actions are inherently unpredictable, often placed in hostile environments, where you need to understand local power structures and the many root causes of the situation you are attempting to solve through innovation.

The call out for me here are the emphasis for systematic learning and building the knowledge base provides the capacity to innovate or not. Also each situation needs significant evaluation before any adopting of practices from other places

The impatience with making fast progress

The report touches on “doing the right things” but it is within the unique dynamics and contextual factors that often innovation is prevented from happening. Innovation relies on a constellation of many enabling and contextual factors fueled by excessive optimism of the ones pushing for innovation solutions. There is so much that can stifle innovation or derail the process.

The recommendation is for greater critical diagnosis and evaluation of all the negative factors and hurdles that set about unearthing a large number of cognitive, normative and political factors. You simply can’t reply on “simple recipes” as a prevailing dogma or well-meaning recommendations, it boils down to exploring the factors, complexities, challenges and realistic time-scales involved in dealing not just with the poor but all complex social challenges.

My call out here: I find this such a timely reminder for all innovation, as business leaders constantly express their frustrations with innovation failing to deliver. The learning for me here is from the report is this increased emphasis on understanding all the negative factors that constantly block innovation and these are different from one situation to another. The environmental analysis becomes vital.

A summary within the report gave me these thoughts.

  1. It is time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process—a transition that might be less glamorous but will be more productive
  2. These recommendations should enable social sector organizations, their stakeholders, and researchers to develop analytical models and tools to unearth negative factors that prevent productive innovation.
  3. Similarly, funders who carefully think through the implications outlined in the report may find ways to escape over-supporting fashionable innovation initiatives and under-supporting promising but difficult innovation efforts, particularly those in complex environments where formulas for social progress have not yet been found.
  4. Finally, the process approach they are recommending to social innovation is an attempt to swing the pendulum back from the supply side of social innovation to the demand side of social innovation.

The authors finish with “Our hope is that an increased emphasis on innovation as a process will help avoid bad social sector investments and thwart unproductive debates about quick fixes to entrenched social problems.

This report gives a useful reminder that there is a lot to keep constantly learning about the differences within innovation

Ideas for InnovationThis report gave me a shift in insight by explaining many of the enabling factors for organizations already established, that are searching to operate at scale within specific social contexts. Incremental innovation is where they might create more social value through focusing on continuous ongoing improvements to extract learning, reinvest this into scaling improvements to then build this into further capacity.

Also we can’t take anything for granted, the context, the environment, the application of different types of innovation all are unique and simply ‘applying’ general solutions just don’t work. I have argued this consistently but this report deals in understanding the specific conditions for a ‘given’ type of innovation as being essential to be really alert too.

Again, this report is “Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail” and well worth your time to read.

Seeing innovation from a specific social perspective has some very useful learning from a business perspective. By understanding the value of incremental improvements can be more valuable in certain contextual situations than simply applying additional innovation without understanding all of the factors behind the challenges that are being tackled.

We seem to pass over distinctive innovation, why?

I see so many suggestions on the types of innovation, actually I’ve offered a few myself, just go and take a look at http://cirf.pbworks.com for a different slant on this . For me, one ‘type’ of innovation that seems always to be often passed over is distinctive innovation in discussions. Why is that?

Most people work away in the trenches of incremental improvements and these outputs make up the vast substance of innovation activity.  Many working in these trenches of innovation on a daily basis would love to be part of a breakthrough but tend to find this is always ring-fenced for a few others to work upon. All they can often do is gaze over the fence or quietly accept this divide simply goes on.

I believe many who work within innovation simply do not share in this delineation of innovation activity, as it divides talent into separate teams, often pitting scarce innovation resource against each other, often in many unseen ways.  This divide of activities is often a real pity but perhaps another story for another day we can explore.

Disruptive innovation is seen, partly by the way it has its effect on us and our lives. Many of us are always happy to discuss disruptive as long as it does not have an impact on ourselves, on the receiving end. As long as we are the ones doing the disrupting, or just wanting to show off the status as being early adopters or within the early majority of the innovation adoption curve, then we love disruption. Otherwise it is a very uncomfortable space many are not prepared to travel too.

I would suggest most people understand incremental as the first type or basic stage of innovation, especially in larger business organizations. For me large organizations give this incremental area far to much of a focus in their resources and efforts, to the detriment of other options which is partly due to their risk-averse cultures. I really do think though, they miss a trick, by failing often to ramp up to breakthrough or disruptive innovation, by not focusing on building a real capacity to strive for ‘distinctive innovation’ on a more consistent, even sustaining basis.

We should move out of the incremental trap far more and not continue to reinforce it as many do. Lets ‘name and shame’ the incrementalists and get them thinking more about distinctive innovation.

The missing value of distinctive

I think we miss something and it is a great big pity. Distinctive innovation is actually not just the middle ground, the passing through point towards breakthrough or disruptive but it is the inspirational point for all of us to rally around far more than we do. Inspirational is really important, it is a great motivating point if we can all achieve far more in our identity with something distinctive than just incremental. Whatever we work upon in innovation we should seek something distinctive as an outcome. I don’t regard the latest flavored yogurt, improvements to the speed of our computer processor power or a few more pixels on our I-phone as anything more than incremental. This is to keep pushing up the awareness curve to extract longer value from the brand or product. I’m looking at something that makes it stand out, to be distinctive.

A transforming point for all to all gather around

I think there is far more value in talking about this transforming type of innovation that I call distinctive. It is not a complete breakthrough, it is not something that really disrupts an industry but it enables a certain leadership status, a chance to build a reputation for your brand or service. Distinctive innovation gives you the ability to build and lead in either design, in solution resolution, in improving function etc., etc. We forget to talk about this type of innovation as we move from incremental to breakthrough.

I believe there is a clear consensus building point for all working on innovation would want to achieve, that is knowing they are delivering something distinctive. It is the new innovation neighborhood we should all move towards and plan out. Lets find ways to get out of the overcrowded incremental slums.

Most people can’t jump or not even be able or allowed to think about breakthrough, as that is far too often  “left to others” What they can really identify with is working on being more distinctive and less trapped in the basic, incremental mindset. What do you think?  Would you want to be associated with something distinctive, I would.

Innovations ‘rates of exchange’ require better understanding

Innovation happens across time. We often constrain our innovation because we ‘shoe horn’ any conceptual thinking into a given time, usually the yearly budgetary plan seems to exercise a large influence in this constraining. We should make the case that different types of  innovation operate and evolve over different time horizons.

I call this the innovation rates of exchange.

A little of the theory: Coherence between organizational context and coordination of outcomes is subject always to those natural tensions of planning, resource allocation and the time imposed. Often decisions have a real tension built into them and they ‘shear’ against the real forces in play. Like our tectonic plates ‘shear’ and cause earthquakes, the ‘shear’ effect has a disruptive influence on innovation outcomes.

Often the time horizon of possible desired innovation often has these real conflicts. The actual realities and needs of the organization we lower the innovation impact in final delivery. We fall back on incremental solutions as the organization does not have the patience, appetite or desire to see through the potential fully.

So that puts the theory out there.

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