Organic innovation primer
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Organic innovation primer

So much of what passes for “innovation” is essentially stuck on the same tracks as ever — merely doing more of the same, just faster or cheaper. That is not quite enough, any more, given that radical new solutions are required in virtually every area of commerce and culture. Yet, the very phrase “radical innovation” causes many to feel a definite chill down the spine. It need not be so scary.

At its core, an effective innovation programme is about balancing the absolute uncertainties of the new with the perceived certainties of the established. Its main aim must be to identify potential value and place it within the context of what the organisation ought to do right now so as to be able to capture that value in the future. Value in terms of not just money but also, to name just a few possible items, ease of recruitment of high quality people, cost reduction and ‘good karma’ of sustainable practices, lowered customer churn, and so on. Ultimately, many of those translate into ROI of money earned or saved, but it is important to not artificially limit the scope of the ideas which, we hope, will be generated. Innovation is the natural outcome of putting the right building blocks together. The building blocks are the right people, the right mindspace and the right tools and spaces — both physical and virtual.Without those building blocks, it has little chance of finding traction on the inside, making it very difficult to find traction for products and services on the outside.

People:

If you allow a group of change agents to emerge, give them training and responsibility, autonomy and challenge, you will be creating conditions for innovation to arise.

Mindspace:

If you start from a position of encouraging curiosity and rewarding learning by trial and error (which some writers have termed “failearning”) you will be conditioning your people to open up their thought processes and step beyond short-term thinking, which means that innovation has the right mental background from which to arise.

Tools and spaces:

If you devote some physical real estate to spaces designed to promote group creative processes, you will be building an “architecture of possibility” (a phrase now often used) where innovation cannot help but arise. In a post-COVID world this may seem verging on impossible, yet the need for such spaces — real or virtual — is more urgent than ever. (And I suspect, with waning demand for standard issue “office real estate”, these types of innovation spaces will pop up with increasing frequency, both within companies and outside of them.)

The place where you want to end up is where innovating is as much a natural part of your business operations as planning and execution. Each business which wishes to still be in business by this time next decade, has to cultivate such an internal culture of innovation thinking. Unfortunately, this state of being still remains something of a theory for most companies, even post-COVID.Innovation is about the needs of clients, the process of satisfying those needs, and the pressure to compete in order to get there quickly. It is never just about the enabling tools but rather about overcoming groupthink, reducing delaying tactics and changing ingrained habits. It is often enabled by technology but is rarely solely about the technology.

The tools change constantly but the process continues, and the pressure to compete remains. This is against a background of our, human, natural tendency to seek order and simple explanations, while the world and everything in it is complex, and getting more so. Combine this with the desire for smooth social interaction and for phenomena to fit into existing patterns, and we can see where groupthink can easily sneak in. Add stress to the mix, and you can almost guarantee that things will go pear-shaped. For example, stress-induced groupthink has been attributed as one of the main factors behind the 1986 Challenger disaster, with team members putting higher value on consensus than on prudent dissent. Total focus on a goal at the expense of systems thinking and ongoing critical appraisal of the situation — have you seen it before?

Delaying is also seen as a rational tactic by many companies — “let’s just see how things pan out.” So is sticking to a very narrow view of what may constitute innovation. In a July 2014 article, a team of three researchers described a sobering, if unsurprising, discovery. Titled “Managers Reject Ideas Customers Want”, the article carried one key message: companies continue to turn out what they see as feasible products and services, and then wave their marketing magic wands to try and make people buy those products and services. “It makes sense that companies would be attracted to feasible ideas, but we found strong evidence that they are not what customers want” said one of the researchers, Jennifer Mueller.

Company leaders, for good psychological reasons, like to believe that they are being innovative when, in fact, they are choosing to make achievable products and services instead. Unfortunately, this is a slippery slide towards being disrupted by competitors who perceive the playing field altogether differently and ignore all the rules.

Seeing innovation as either a miracle pill or attractive bunting does nothing to fix the deep lack of innovative thinking which is required in every company which was not “born digital.” Pretend innovation may “make the people feel better for a while” — I have had this very sentence said to me by a client, so I am not making this up — but it gets the company not an inch closer to actual innovation thinking. If anything, it gets it further away, since the play-acting at innovation may be actually taken for real innovation, leaving no room, or perceived need, for any actual innovation to take root. Lipstick on a pig. Digital transformation, that context which envelops all business activity now, whether business leaders are aware of it or not, is both the threat, and the opportunity which must govern how you see your business.