The bad news:
There aren’t any.
There is no template for Innovation.
If someone offers a set, guaranteed methodology of “making you Agile”, or a template or recipe for repeating innovation, be sceptical. This is not how innovation works, nor is it how management and practices can really propagate.
By its very nature, innovation can only happen a couple of times at best before it’s no longer innovative and people lose interest and productivity. Creating an organisational culture that is primed to innovate can be done – it’s part of what I can help an organisation learn. But there is no template or hack for it. Each organisation (and situation) is different, and requires different methods to acquire its own skills to learn how to innovate, but there is one thing it always needs – buy in and adaptability from management and Leadership.
As I mentioned in my post Of Scuba Diving, Cynefin, & Value Delivery – in markets that are slowing or going into stasis, in a new landscape unfamiliar to many businesses now, there is a drive to innovate, to influence.
Innovate what, though? Anything – anything that differentiates, that sparks interest, brings new relevancy, that gives an edge. The shift from focusing on things requiring innovation to finding anything to innovate – to be innovative – is starting to occur, and organisations are trying to find a secret, repeatable formula to achieve that goal – but true innovation is not easy, well understood, or predictable.
Organisations often consider innovation less as an abstract emergence and more as a tool, and also speak about disrupting the market in the same breath, which is a little different:
Innovation is usually seen as differentiation in a current market that aims to grow market share and hopefully dominate that market by being novel, better, the next big thing, whilst Disruption is usually seen as more of a process over time that replaces the entire market with a new one through ubiquity and seeks to change how the entire industry operates.
Both of these actually have an interesting and complex interaction with orthodoxies and market S-curves, which I’ll explore another time, and can be misused as concepts. Neither are easy or guaranteed.
Sadly, not how Innovation works!
So how do you Innovate?
Innovation, unless you happen to strike it lucky, is often about understanding and boundary-controlling unconstrained circumstances where innovative ideas can be explored using immediate feedback, and the positive ones amplified (with the dampening of the not-so-positive). This often also involves listening to everyone in the company – the heretics, mavericks, and outliers, who may be more likely to be innovative – as well as the mainstream agreement, which can be quite inclined to follow leadership through reward structures and a toe in sycophancy. This is where most companies face difficulties, because they stick to trusted and traditional methods, whether they are fit for purpose or not.
Innovation can also occur hand in hand with a crisis, but this is unbounded and risky (any consultant pushing a crisis to force innovation is someone to be wary of!).
Another thing to avoid is a promise of the latest in management techniques. Management fads sweep through general industry every 6-12 months, and may or may not have any validity whatsoever; I can use the original example of the Hawthorn Effect again as a hypothetical warning, courtesy of Cognitive Edge:
A light increase was introduced into the Hawthorne Cable factory to see if it helped production.
Productivity increased as a result.
This is where many companies would leave it, satisfied they had resolved an issue; often this is immediately seized upon as Correlation=Causation, a quick and easy simplified recipe to increase productivity. In this instance, the company decided to test what would happen if they dropped the light levels again, expecting a decrease.
These days, it’s likely two book formats and a sponsored Facebook post would be up within a month giving step-by-step success instructions on how to best bring light to enhance productivity, rather than going back and attempting to better understand the science behind what happened, and today we have more fads than ever as a result of this constant kneejerk in management approaches.
This result obviously was not in line with expectations; what it actually showed was humans responding to novelty, and it’s been found we only do this a couple of times at best before we stop.
New shiny things
When something is novel, and seems to work very well in one instance, it is extremely attractive to people and organisations as a method to replicate success or gain image/reputation. Innovation by nature is novel, and when it is effective it can be exponentially rewarding. It has a foot firmly in the Hawthorne effect space; Amazon is an excellent example of this. The company offered something practical, convenient, and above all novel, in a space where people doubted it could be done cost effectively. They innovated, and immediately spawned many imitators – but none of them have achieved what Amazon has, despite cloning multiple actions from its rise. Organisations looked at Amazon and tried to emulated the success, but failed. Why?
Because it had already been innovated!
On the back of this come the Fad Templates, ideas of “the Amazon way”, methods to do what Amazon did in your own company, and so on. The temptation exists to stop at the Correlation=Causation point and market or broadcast this, especially for consultants, because it’s easy to market and pitch.
“We can make you the next Amazon!” Or, going back to Hawthorne Cable, “Light Bringers Increase Productivity! Any company can increase productivity in this one easy step!”
Managers hear about what seems to be a catalyst for success and implement it in the hopes of replicating it, usually in very different scenarios (or scenarios that are too similar, thus a saturated entry point). Many fail to see the improvement, but assume it’s not being done correctly, or not enough time has passed. As the interest starts to peter out, a second wave of the same technique sweeps through industry because now enough companies are doing it that it has become de rigeur. Eventually, it falls into disuse and is phased out, just in time for a new fad to sweep through.
Long-, even medium-term, this does not support an organisation or help growth, and can be very damaging. New doesn’t always mean better, in the same way that old doesn’t still equal the best way. It’s up to an organisation to probe what works for their situation and adapt.
What Innovation involves.
Innovation is cleaved to Management and Leadership.
Leadership and Organisations must accept fundamental change to innovate, because INNOVATION IS CHANGE, whether incremental or radical in nature.
Management science and management consultancy needs to be based in proven and evolving techniques, and these have long moved away from Taylorism and the basis of Process Engineering, and even the newer Systems Thinking. The world of industry has changed; at the very least we’ve been through 4, and possibly 6, industrial revolutions by this point. A consultant should be helping guide you based on the best possible individually probed basis for the organisation today, and that can’t be done based on old methods, fads or templates, but on provable repeatable science and adapting to each individual circumstance. This in turn needs to be supported at a cultural level by Leadership; the more rigid, traditional, and dismissive it is of the smaller outlier voices, the less likely innovation and change will occur.
As with most things in life – learning something to mastery, getting fit, losing weight – shortcuts are usually not anything past short-term and shallow, and rarely get the result we truly want. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. This means a little pain and adjustment, experimentation and investment, but it’s usually worth the change, and the emergent opportunities give far better paths to the future.
The same applies to innovation; copying and pasting from someone else who innovated is extremely unlikely to produce the same results. Instead, it’s better to probe in complexity and discover all possible opportunities to find your own contextual innovations where you can. Cynefin is a very effective framework for helping systems do this, and adaptive – what I tend to think of as true – Agility will also help with this; the ability to gauge in a granular and contextual fashion what method or methods are required in a given situation for a given company as opposed to a reliance on structure, buzzwords, recipes, and constraints.
As we move into an uncertain future, beset by a quickly changing generational market demographic, and more and more companies flounder or even founder whilst feeling they have lost their way, this approach has become ever more key.
A final thought – a consultant should never be the one to introduce the change and “cure” anything. We are there as an advisor, a mentor, a coach, to help an organisation understand, discover, and learn how to do this for itself – otherwise it’s not sustained after we leave and, ultimately, likely to fail.