How to Get Fit for Innovation

Anyone might get lucky once, but to sustain innovative performance requires something much deeper, and seven core principles stand out.

I’ve just returned from the ISPIM conference in Stockholm, where around 500 people spent several days kicking around the big questions of how to work successfully at the innovation frontier. A great feature of the conference is that it brings together researchers and academics, practitioners and policy makers, consultants and coaches – and there’s a willingness to share ideas, insights and concerns. It was also a conference taking place against a footballing background – and there were plenty of detours to local cafes to catch games of the World Cup. Watching footballers take the field for their tournament matches reminds you very quickly that these are not simply a group of 11 men tumbling out of the pub or roused from their Sunday afternoon armchairs. They are a trained and rehearsed squad, their performance the result of hours of strenuous effort. All that hard work doesn’t guarantee them success on the pitch, but it certainly helps. It’s also interesting to watch the surprising contenders – small countries like Switzerland or Belgium taking on their much bigger rivals. Success in a competition like this is about being agile, flexible, creative – and remembering that what worked in the past may not be enough to succeed in the future. Winning depends on the capacity for innovation – and for innovating our approaches to that challenge. In many ways, the drama being played out on the pitches in Russia was the same as that being discussed in the conference sessions. Innovation matters to any organization trying to deal with an uncertain and increasingly turbulent environment. And the evidence is clear – success isn’t an accident but rather the product of well-rehearsed and embedded behaviors. As with athletes training for the big event, success depends on a regime of practice and reinforcement to the point where these things become automatic.   Psychologists call these routines, and they define "the way we do things around here"; they become the culture of the organization. There’s no shortage of conferences like ISPIM at which companies share experiences to try to distill recipes for success. And there’s plenty more inspiration to take from a wide range of reports from consultancies mapping trends and identifying key innovation management practices. The dates and locations might change, some of the specific challenges might appear new, but the underlying message is surprisingly constant. And it’s backed by a wealth of research studies that have been trying to explore and unpack the DNA of successful long-running innovators. See also: 3 Myths That Inhibit Innovation (Part 2)   So what does it look like – what is "innovation fitness"? It’s not a single magic ingredient but rather attention paid to a set of principles and the behaviors that help the organization act on them. Anyone might get lucky once, but to sustain innovative performance requires something much deeper, and seven core principles stand out as being important:
  • Innovation is not a magic moment – it’s not like the cartoon in which a bubble appears containing a bright idea. It takes place over time, and smart organizations map and manage the journey from idea to successful capture of value from that idea.
    • This doesn’t happen by accident; it’s a journey, and there are different stations on the way, different activities requiring different approaches
    • Smart organizations have a map for their journeys, create structures and policies, use tools and methods to help manage risk and uncertainty as projects proceed
    • They use this process to enable them to repeat the trick and build into it the capacity to stop or pivot projects as well as start them
  • Innovation is not a slogan or a fashion accessory; it’s a strategic imperative
    • Innovation needs a road map for the future, spelling out clearly where and how change will take us forward
    • It depends on strategic leadership, providing a stretching vision and encouraging and empowering people to contribute their ideas and efforts toward realizing it
    • It requires commitment, not just words – strategic innovation leadership is about putting resources into play
    • People only buy in to strategy when they understand it, so it also requires mechanisms to communicate and engage them
    • Innovation is about scarce resources and risk, so it’s essential that it is monitored and measured, a key part of the organization’s high-level dashboard
  • Innovation is all about change – smart organizations recognize that strategic advantage can come from change along multiple dimensions.
    • Change in what we offer the world – products or service innovation
    • Change in how we create and deliver that offering – process innovation
    • Change in the markets we address and our relationship to them
    • Change in the underlying mental model – business model innovation
    • Smart organizations explore all the innovation space available to them and build a balanced portfolio across these different types
  • Innovation involves a portfolio of risk:
    • It involves a great deal of "do better" incremental innovation, exploiting what we already know – improving on what’s already there, tightening up processes, improving customer service, enhancing product offerings, etc.
    • But it also involves radical innovation, exploring new and unmapped space. This kind of "do radical" innovation is about step changes along the trajectories we work with, bigger bets around new technologies, entering new markets, shifting our approach, etc.
    • And from time to time it requires "do different" – reframing the game, looking with an entrepreneur’s eye on how to change the rules of the game or start a new one – disruptive innovation, co-evolving in an emerging new world
    • Organizations need different capabilities in each, allowing for experimentation, failure and above all learning and accumulation of experience for next time
    • And they need "ambidexterity" – being able to do all of this under the same roof, taking advantage of the leverage their resource base can offer. They find ways of integrating the learning around renewing the organization while balancing the tensions and internal challenges that different forms of innovation can set up.
  • Innovation is a multi-player game – it’s an ecosystem of different actors who can become part of an innovation network
    • This has always been the case, innovation is about networks of knowledge. But in today’s knowledge-rich environment the challenge of open innovation begins with recognizing that not all the smart guys work for you
    • Smart innovating organizations spend a lot of time developing and managing their networks – seeking out and building new nodes, strengthening existing ones and pruning redundant ones
    • They recognize that users are a powerful source of knowledge, and work to engage lead users and user-innovators in processes of co-creation
    • They explore beyond the boundaries of the normal business frame, looking to develop peripheral vision to pick up on weak signals and emerging opportunities far from their core
See also: How ‘Not Invented Here’ Limits Innovation  
  • Innovation is about people and smart organizations working to develop an active innovation culture.
    • Innovation not just as the province of specialists, so everyone can contribute to the innovation story
    • Needs enabling structures and tools, like collaboration platforms
    • Needs to tap into the natural creativity and entrepreneurship but also channel it
    • Needs to train and develop it – understanding innovation and acquiring and honing the skills to be innovative
    • Needs to recognize and reward it
    • Needs to tolerate ambiguity and failure
    • Needs to give people space, time, permission to play
  • Innovation is a dynamic capability – organizations need the capability not only to adapt to a changing world but also the second-order capability to step back and reset their approaches. They need innovation model innovation.
    • Need for double-loop learning, adding and modifying and pruning the innovation routines – the behaviors embedded in structures, processes and policies.
    • Three key questions need to be regularly asked. Of the routines we use:
      • Which should we do more of, reinforce?
      • Which should we do less of, even stop doing?
      • Which new ones do we need to cope with new challenges?
    • Need for a core team to help with this, monitoring and reviewing, catalyzing and experimenting – an innovation management capacity
    The challenge, of course, is not just recognizing the need for these capabilities but actually acquiring them. And unfortunately there’s no substitute for the hard work and commitment to building them to the point where they become the way we do things around here. It’s about learning and practice – simply taking out a gym membership doesn’t build up the kind of high-performance athlete able to compete at world-class levels. So why put in the hard work? Because research evidence, reinforced by consulting reports and conference presentations, also shows that success does follow. Actively managing innovation makes a difference. Innovation isn’t a matter of luck, it’s a capability that can be built. Innovators are made, not born.

John Bessant

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John Bessant

John Bessant holds the chair in innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Exeter and has visiting appointments at the universities of Erlangen-Nuremburg and Queensland University of Technology.


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