Reflecting on the correspondence I have received after my previous post and recent training sessions with manufacturers, I realize that people are looking for tools and tricks to “fix” innovation. Sometimes it is actually not even about innovation, but about making up for past decisions like not investing in technology or market development when they should have. Others think of innovation as a function, or as a management tool that can be standardized into a job description or an area of responsibility. While this is possible in some contexts, I don’t find this approach to innovation so useful in the smaller and medium sized manufacturing firms and the research/technology institution space where I am working in.
For me, innovation is firstly a value, perspective on how organizations should be. When management says “we are an innovative organization” or “we want an innovative culture” or “our reputation is that we are innovative” then we can move to tools, portfolios, tricks, and tweaks (those things that people in innovation functions must attend to). Many textbooks, articles and blog sites on innovation and technology management are then useful. Actually the challenge is to decide which of the bucketloads of advice to use, and consultants like me typically help organizations to choose a few tools and to then use them consistently and fully. I would dare to say that it is relatively easy to help companies that are already innovative to become more innovative.
The area that I am really intrigued by, are those organizations that are not innovative, or that would not describe themselves as having an innovative culture. Maybe they used to be innovative. Maybe they are innovative in some areas, but not in others. Maybe they had one or two tricks in the past that have now become old. These could be extremely competent organizations, like a research programme, a manufacturer of highly specialized industrial equipment, or an organization that simply design and manufacturers what their customers expressively tell them to make. Even if the outputs of these organizations can be described as “innovative”, these organizations themselves do not necessarily have innovative cultures that constantly are creating novel ideas, processes and markets. In my experience these organizations have technically brilliant people, but management is often not able to harness the genius, experience or creativity of their people. The main reason for this is not a lack of technique, tools or tricks. It is because of a lack of an innovative culture, leading to a lack of innovative purpose. These organizations are trapped. They are equipped for the past, but they are paralyzed by all the choices they have to make about the future. For management, it feels like everything that they have in place are inadequate and need equal attention, ranging from attracting staff with better (or different) qualifications to finding new markets, developing new technological capability, sorting out cash flow and capital expenditure, addressing succession planning, etc.
Improving the innovation culture of an organization is a complex issue. It is not about tasks, functions or tools, but about changing relations between people, within and beyond the boundaries of the organization.
When working with organizations that must improve their innovative culture, motivational speeches, optimistic visions of the future, etc, are not useful and could in fact deepen the crises facing management. Instruments such as scenario planning, roadmaps, foresight techniques, or interventions like starting a R&D unit, a lean exercise to reduce waste, are all addressing the wrong issues and distract management from confronting the real issue that are stifling the organization. It narrows the ability of management and specialists to scan within and beyond the organisation for opportunities that could be used to change the way people work together, think together, solve problems together. The typical employee in a manufacturing or technical environment loves solving problems, love tinkering with novelty. But often management becomes so performance or target obsessed (lean?) that they don’t tap into the latent potential of their people.
Improving the innovation culture process starts with connecting management back with their people. It starts in the present, the now, not the future scenarios, not with using innovation techniques, better analytical tools, and in most cases not with some or other management fad. It goes beyond trying to improve products, processes or business areas, beyond gaps in the management capability. It must look at the relations between people, between what people know and can do now (or in the recent past), and the potential the people see to make small improvements.
When management has the courage to decide to improve their innovative culture it starts a process that cannot be described as incremental improvement, as that sounds too directed. It is rather like a deepening, or an awakening where employees are inspired to contribute, and management is more aware what they can do to enable their employees to become more innovative on all fronts. Of course, management also face the risk that outdated management approaches that does not seek to empower employees to be creative will be exposed, and some tough decisions will have to be made.
For me the most promising approach to improving innovation in an organization is a organization development approach (not limited to design, not based on technical innovation instruments) based on complexity thinking, like our Systemic Insight approach. We are using instruments such as Sensemaker developed by Cognitive Edge to find areas for improvement, areas where relations between knowledge objects (knowledge, artificats, heuristics, etc) and people can be improved, starting from where the system is and then probing to understand what the immediate potential is for improvement. It allows people to take many small steps in parallel to improve the system and to push back the boundaries that have constrained the creativity in the organization.
In my view, building an innovation culture goes far beyond establishing or refining innovation management functions. It is a strategic issue that is initiated by top management, but that will soon spill over into every area of the organization, hence it cannot be driven from a management function like “innovation”.