Instigating Innovation: Accelerating Experimentation in industry

When innovation centers, technology transfer centers, applied research platforms and other similar organisations want to help industry with innovation, one way could be to assist companies to experiment with new ideas. I will simply refer to these centers from here onward as innovation and technology support centers. In most of the places where I work these centers are often hosted by or associated with universities, applied research organisations or with technology transfer organisations.

One way to support industry to experiment is through various technology demonstration-like activities, allowing enterprises access to scarce and sophisticated equipment where they can try new ideas. In its simplest form, facilities allow companies to order samples to a certain specification, allowing a company to see whether a particular process can meet a specification or performance criteria. A slightly more intensive form of tech demonstration allows in visitors and a technology and its application is demonstrated (eyes only, no touching!). Very often equipment suppliers play this role, but in many developing countries equipment suppliers behave more like agents and can not really demonstrate equipment.

In Germany I saw demonstration facilities where the pro’s showed the enterprises how things works, and then they stood back allowing teams from a company to try things themselves.

A critical role of innovation support centers is to provide industry with comparative studies of different process equipment. For instance, in an innovation center supporting metal based manufacturers, providing industry with a comparison of the costs and uses of different kinds of CAD systems could be extremely valuable to industry.

Maker labs, Fablabs and similar centers all make it easier for teams that want to create or tinker with an idea to gain access to diverse technologies, reducing the costs of experimenting. However, the range of equipment in these labs are often not so advanced, but it can often be very diversified. In my experience these centers are very helpful to refine early idea formation and prototyping. However, to help manufacturers experiment with different process technologies, different kinds of materials, substitute technologies, etc. is the a binding constraint in many developing countries. The costs of gaining new knowledge is high, and due to high costs of failure, companies do not experiment.

Innovation support centers must be very intentional about reducing the costs of various kinds of experiments if they want manufacturers, emergent enterprises and inventors to try new ideas. These innovation centers can play a role by:

a) assisting companies to internally organize themselves better for experimentation internally

b) assisting many companies to organize themselves better for experimentation collaboratively

c) conducting transparent experiments on behalf of industry collectives

In my experience, graduates from science disciplines often understand how to conduct experiments because their coursework often involve time in a lab. They know basics like isolating variables, managing samples, measuring results, etc. However, engineering graduates often do not have this experience (at least in the countries where I am working most). For many engineering graduates, the closest they will ever get to an experiment is a CAD design, or perhaps a 3D printed prototype.

Therefore, it is necessary for a range of these innovation and technology support centres to assist companies at various hierarchical levels to experiment.

At the functional or operational level, organising for experimentation involves:

  • creating teams from different operational backgrounds,
  • creating multiple teams working on the same problem,
  • getting different teams to pursue different approaches
  • failing in parallel and then comparing results regularly
  • failing faster by using iterations, physical prototypes and mock ups
  • According to Thomke, results should be anticipated and exploited – even before the results are confirmed

At a higher management level, organising for experimentation involves:

  • Changing measurement systems to not only reward success, but to encourage trying new things (thus encouraging learning and not discouraging failure).
  • moving from expert opinion to allow naivety and creativity
  • Preparing for ideas and results that may point to management failures or inefficiencies elsewhere in the firm (e.g. improving a process may be hampered by a company policy from the finance department)

Getting multiple companies and supporting organisations to experiment together is of course a little bit harder. Management of different organisations have many reasons to hide failures, thus undermining collective learning. One way around this could be to use a panel or collective of companies to identify a range of experiments, and then these experiments are conducted at the supporting institution in a transparent way. All the results (success, failures and variable results) are carefully documented and shared with the companies. However, to get the manufacturers to use these new ideas may require some incentives. In my experience, this works much better in a competitive environment, where companies are under pressure to use new ideas to gain an advantage. In industries with poor dynamism and low competition, new ideas are often not leveraged because it simply takes too much effort to be different.

Promising ideas from experiments can be combined and integrated after several iterations to create working prototypes. Here the challenge is to help industries to think small. First get the prototype process to work at a small scale and at lower cost before going to large scale of testing several variables simultanously. An important heuristic is to prototype at as small as possible scale while keeping the key mechanical or scientific properties consistent. More about this in a later post. (Or perhaps some of the people I have helped recently would not mind sharing their experience in the comments?)

I know this is already a long post, but I will add that Dave Snowden promotes Safe2fail probes, where teams are forced to design a range of experiments going in a range of directions even if failure is certain in some instances. In my experience this really works well. It breaks the linear thinking that often dominates the technical and manufacturing industries by acknowledging that while there may be preferred solutions, alternatives and especially naive experiments should be included in the overall portfolio. To make this work it is really important that the teams report back regularly on their learning and results, and that all the teams together decide which solutions worked best within the context.

THOMKE, S.H. 2003.  Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Innovation. Harvard Business Press.

 

Recognizing competing hypothesis as complex

In order to improve the economic performance of an industry or a territory, it is important to recognize the current Status Quo of the economy. This is basically to understand “what is?”, but to also understand “what is possible next?”. You may think that local stakeholders, firms and public officials will know the answer to “what is going on now?”, but every time I have done such an assessment I have discovered new suppliers, new innovations, new demands and many new connections between different actors.

The benefit of being a facilitator, process consultant or development expert, is that we can move between different actors, observe certain trends, recognize gaps and form an overall picture of what we think is going on. It is very difficult for enterprises to form such a picture as they can only observe other firms from a distance.

The main challenge is about figuring out what can be done to improve certain gaps or to change the patterns that we observe. These are answers to “What is possible next?” questions . As Mesopartner, we always insist that any process to diagnose an industry or a region starts with the formulation of various hypothesis. This hypothesis formulation before we commence is not only about revealing our bias, nor only about figuring out what exactly we want to find out. It also helps us to figure out what kind of process is needed, the scope of the analysis and what different actors expect from the process.

Unlike in academic or scientific research, hypothesis formulation does not only happen in the early stages of a diagnostic or improvement process, it should be constantly reflected upon and expanded as we go on during the process of meeting stakeholders and analyzing data. This is where the importance of recognizing competing hypothesis within our team and between different stakeholders are important.This process is not about convergence, but about revealing what different actors and the investigator believes is going on.

Economic development practice is full of competing hypothesis that all seem to be very plausible. In a recent training event with Dave Snowden the consequences of not recognizing or revealing these competing hypothesis struck me. According to Dave, competing hypothesis that plausibly explains the same phenomena indicates that we are most likely dealing with a complex issue. For instance, in South Africa we have competing hypothesis about the role of small firms in the economy. One hypothesis is that small firms are engines of growth and innovation, therefore they deserve support. A competing hypothesis is that large firms invest more in innovation and growth, and that they are better drivers of economic growth. Both hypotheses are plausible – the issue is complex. Recognizing this complexity is very important, as the cause and effect relations are not easy to identify and they might even be changing – the situation is non-linear. (Marcus Jenal and I wrote a working paper on complexity in development). This simply means that to get a specific outcome, the path will most likely be indirect or oblique – cause and effect is not linear.

Why is it important to recognize competing hypothesis, or to know when some patterns in the economy or complex? The answer is that it is almost impossible to analyze a complex issue with normal diagnostic instruments. Complex patterns can only be understood by engagement, that is, through experimentation. Again, according to Dave Snowden, you have to probe a complex issue by trying several different possible fixes simultaneously, then observe (sense) what seems to work best under the current circumstances. The bottom line is that you analyze a complex issue by experimenting with it, not by observing or analyzing it.

The implication of this insight in my own work has been huge. By recognizing that many issues that I am dealing with are complex (due to competing hypothesis that are very plausible) and can only be addressed through direct engagement has saved me and my customers a lot of resources that was previously spent on seemingly circular analysis. I now use the hypothesis formation with my clients to try and see if we have competing hypothesis of “what is” and “what must be done”. Where the hypothesis seems to be straight forward, we can define a research process to reveal what is going on and what can be done to improve the situation. But when we have different competing hypothesis of what is going on, we have to immediately devise several simultaneous experiments to try and find an upgrading path. I thought my customers would not like the idea of experiments, but I was wrong.

The conditions are that you must take steps to ensure that there are many different experiments that are all very small, and that by design take different approaches to try and solve the same problem. This takes learning by doing to a new level – because now failure is as important as success as it helps us to find the paths to better performance by reducing alternatives and finding the factors in the context that makes progress possible. The biggest surprise for me is that this process of purposeful small experiments to see what is possible under current conditions (context) has unlocked my own and my customers creativity.

Perhaps a topic for a separate blog is that to really uncover these competing hypothesis we have to make sure that we do not converge too soon about what we think is going on. Maintaining divergence and variety is key – this is another challenge for me as a facilitator that is used to helping minds meet!

Help – the industry I am working with is uncompetitive and many do not care

In most strategic management textbooks 4 generic factors are identified that can be used to build competitive advantage: efficiency, quality, innovation and customer responsiveness. These four factors are highly interrelated, as an improvement in customer responsiveness for instance could result in improved quality and better efficiencies. By addressing these four factors a business can reduce its costs and can create a differentiated position in a market. Let me briefly expand on the four factors.

Generic competitive advantage

  • Superior efficiency: a manufacturer converts inputs into outputs. Inputs are basic elements such as land, capital, labor,raw materials or knowledge. Firms that manage this conversion by constantly trying to find better ways to reduce costs, improve throughput and reduce wastage tend to be able to be more price competitive.
  • Superior quality: means that products are reliable and that they can do the job that they were designed for, meeting the specifications and performance requirements of customers. In most cases it is difficult to ensure consistent and reliable products without a system in place to control quality
  • Superior innovation: This is about the novelty of the products, process or services of the firm. It is not just about the great design of the product, but about the total offering and how customers can interact with the firm. Thus it includes how the company thinks about its own structures, internal systems, relations with markets and customers, use of technology and product development.
  • Superior responsiveness to customers: A firm that is highly responsive to its customer not only meets their requirements, it strives to anticipate and exceed those requirements. Although this could be about flexibility to respond to customers demand, in most cases it is not. It could simply be to find a way to respond the needs of customers in a creative way.

Enough of the strategy lesson. Back to the real world where we are all trying to use our own limited resources to promote particular industries or regions.

Here are the questions that keeps me awake about this project:

What if the industry that I am working with do not seem very eager to develop any real advantage around any of these four factors?

What must I do to improve the competitiveness of the region if the firms do not seem to even care about their own competitiveness?

For the last few weeks I have been wondering about these questions as I visit a range of manufacturers as part of a process to stimulate a regional innovation system in an industrial area. By visiting many firms in this region I noticed a big gap between those that are  are differentiated or excellent and the rest. The gap is so big that I sometimes wonder if it ever would be possible to move or support firms to cross over the empty space between those that can be described as “excellent” versus the “average”. Knowing that I only have a limited time, and the organization that I am supporting (An University) only has limited resources, I started worrying about helping all the firms. But this is not possible nor is it desirable.

All the average firms can offer many arguments for their current state. They lay the blame at policy uncertainty, high costs of borrowing, crime, political interference, expensive employees, low skills and many more. Many would say that they are component manufacturers that depend on the strategies and innovations of their customers (we just make what they want how they want it). Very few firms ever acknowledge that their current state is a reflection of past strategic choices taken deliberately or that played out to the current status because of not making decisions.

Yet, almost each of the excellent firms that we come across in our fieldwork focused on getting some basic principles. Many started monitoring their costs and wastage to try and improve their efficiencies. They focused on equipping their staff to understand the business, the products and the process, resulting in lower failures and higher quality. They spoke to their customers to find out how they can offer better services and products, even when they were just manufacturers of components used in someone else product. They focused on the quality of their products by looking at the quality of their process, their equipment, their systems and their management.

Those that are excellent are not necessarily better educated, better off financially, or better engineers. They just took charge despite being in the same economy, the same reason and even the same sector, with all the same environmental factors that the average firms use as a reason to do nothing. Sometimes the firms that are now excellent where started by disgruntled employees quitting the average firms. Or in other cases, the excellent firms were started by people from outside the sector moving in with a different perspective and approach.

What bothers me is the way the public sector responds to the manufacturing sector with their funding, support interventions and incentives. The strange thing is that most public sector interventions are aimed at the average or below average performers. It is almost as if the logic is that they are weaker and therefore they need protection and special care. Well, if economics is the study of how humans allocate scarce resources, then we should be very worried about directing too much of our scarce resources to firms that cannot use the resources the society endow them with (capital, labour, land and knowledge). Of course there are exceptions, but the problem is finding a fair way of deciding when it is justified to protect a firm and when it is best to let a struggling firm fold in so that the resources can be redeployed to other people that are able to use these same resources in a better way.

So what can we do when we are faced with this situation? Here are some of the ideas that we are working on now.

Lets say, of the 50 manufacturers we want to work with, 5 stand out as trying harder than the others. Perhaps another 5 or so are ambitious but they just don’t seem to know where to start, who to work with or where to go. We argued that we start with the first 5 (already good) and the 2nd five (the almost there). Then we invited any of the willing from the rest of the group (3 more stepped to the front). Now we have a core group to work with. Now we are trying to find ways to better connect them with each other, trying to get them to identify their own and their common competencies and opportunities. We have arranged a few pilots to support some of these firms to try and improve their own performance, and we have arranged some events with experts to discuss common issues.

But we have to remind ourselves that we cannot create competitive firms if they do not at least work on the four generic advantages outlined earlier. We cannot improve the competitiveness of the region without being able to show firms that are excellent. Trying to get these generic factors under their control is a minimum requirement. We should never use public resources to support firms that are not serious about improving their overall performance. Furthermore, everything that we do should become public knowledge in this industry and perhaps in the downstream customers, perhaps one of the other firms or even a customer decides to step up and form part of our initiative.

  • Have you also had an experience like this? The firms you are expected to work with just don’t seem bothered by their current status or improving their game?
  • Hey, what else should I do?
  • How do we use the principles of innovation systems and good development practice to get firms in a region to work together to improve their competitive performance in order to improve the economics of the region?

User-led innovation

Here is another short article that I wrote on the topic of user-led innovation. Many of my clients are asking about this topic. Because we are so far away from the industrialised countries, and because we have such huge geographical spaces to cover, we are faced by sophisticated and sometimes unreasonable demands. Therefore lead firms, lead customers, government and problems solvers are all asking for some very demanding solutions. Many of them are not waiting for new innovations to come from the markets, they are simply innovating to solve their own problems.

In recent years the focus in value chain promotion has increasingly emphasised the importance of systematic and market-based interventions. Within innovation system promotion, markets are important not only as selectors or buyers of successful innovations. Specialised users or unmet local needs could also be used as an impulse to stimulate innovation in a specific part of a value chain. The challenge here is not to ‘import’ technology or ‘solve’ a problem, but to get industry and its supporting structures to respond to this opportunity. This can often be achieved by better articulating unmet needs, or facilitating interaction between innovative producers and user groups.

Authors such as Von Hippel (2005, 1988) have over the years made a strong case for recognition of the innovations introduced by users, especially lead users. For instance, Von Hippel argues that customers (markets) often know what design criteria they have, and if a producer can capture this knowledge then new products could be created. Other authors, most notably Michael Porter, has in several publications indicated that the force of market demand not only shapes the design of products and technologies or strategies of firms (i.e. 5 Forces analysis), but that it could affect industry structure (i.e. the Diamond of Competitiveness). In his work Porter also emphasises the role of sophisticated or demanding customers in the innovativeness of firms.

Lead users may also provide unique opportunities for firms to innovate by customising or combining existing elements of technologies to respond to the needs of a potential customer group. For instance, many medical devices originate from the US or Europe. But surgeons and operating theatre staff working in distant locations may have unique functional requirements for these instruments, and if approached or observed in their working environments may provide important clues or insights on how instruments can be customised to improve their functionality. While firms in developing countries may be far from large markets, they are often close to specialised or niche users that may then create opportunities for innovators.

The risk of an emphasis on user-led innovation is that path dependence may occur and that blindness to rival technologies may result in a marketplace being disrupted by a rival technology. Path dependence occurs when producers respond to the demands of a certain kind of customer through investment choices that do not allow the producer to switch to a different technology or market. These customers may in turn be exposed to other market forces or technological change processes that may affect their continued demand for a given technology. The risk of the strong governance of strong buyers in the chain may then lead to a tunnel view that does not consider the upgrading potentials and requirements of the whole innovation system in the sector or region, but a too-narrow perspective on companies and their need to upgrade according to the demands of the main buyers and final customers[1]. The insights as well as interventions may be too narrow and may not lead to more proactive knowledge loops but to a reactive orientation that does not encourage new ways of doing things in the system.

Experienced value chain practitioners will be able to identify the opportunities and the risks of working with lead users as sources of innovation, as in value chains lead customers often emerge who can be used to better position certain actors in a chain. Although this usually works to the benefit of certain kinds of chain actors, it could also be argued that it deepens the dependence on specific kinds of customers (resulting in path dependence).

Sources:

VON HIPPEL, E. (1988) The sources of innovation, New York, NY, Oxford University Press.

VON HIPPEL, E. (2005) Democratizing innovation, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.


[1] For instance, the IDS has published several papers on this and related topics which can be found at http://www.ids.ac.uk/go/idsproject/clusters-in-the-global-economy

Moderating large events

I have just created a new sub-page under the me @ work page on my experiences of moderating large(ish) events. With large I mean events with more than 50 people in, but still not 1000s of participants that Natasha Walker enjoys to facilitate!

There are some pictures on the page of the technology configuration and the role of the moderator in a large event.

Please take a look and contribute your experience of moderating or even participating in larger events.

Change in societies – part 2

In my work with trying to get the private sector to perform better, I often deal with sectors and their support institutions. Very often there are official or recognised industry bodies that are promoting the interests of industry. The least these industry bodies do is to organise an annual golf day, with some even playing an important role to lobby with government. The more organised sector bodies play an active role in sharing information, promoting standards amongst their members, or in some cases actively trying to develop their members or new markets. So these industry bodies often try to affect change in the way I described in the previous post.

But although these organisations are functional units themselves, they are actors trying to promote change in a small part of a society. This means that while they can affect change internal to their organisation through formal change or organisation development methods (using hierarchies, sanctions, incentives and process management), they have to also play a leading role in changing the society around them. The members of the industry body, their supporters and the broader innovation system related to this industry body is not physically part of the organisation, but forms a sub-group of the society around the industry body.

Several challenges arise in this process of trying to get a part of a society to change. The first challenge is that this process of upgrading the performance of industry is often not recognised as a change process. Secondly, societal change is a tough thing to do, and the body of knowledge on how to achieve change in societies is still in infancy. Thirdly, to affect change in a society it is important to appeal to the common identity or value system of the group being targeted, and very often both these factor are weak within industries. For example, some pharmaceutical companies consider themselves to be in the cosmetic sector, while others in health. This means that even if we classify a firm in a given sector, they may still identify more with another sub-group in the society.

For instance, in my earlier post I mentioned the importance of leaders using value systems to lead through example. How can this be related to trying to change the performance or behaviour of an industry? The answer is that we have to make positive examples of those that are early adopters, or leaders. By showing how some firms innovative, or overcome problems through innovative thinking, creates opportunities for others to imitate. Furthermore, industry bodies cannot really use incentives or sanctions to inspire change. However, they can play an extremely important role of communicating why behavioural change or improvement is necessary. If industry bodies cannot build a better case for why firms need to pull up their socks, cooperate better, compete more, innovate or invest, then nobody else will be able to achieve this until it is too late.

Thus, industry bodies have a critical role to play in using their organised members to inspire behavioural change or performance improvement. This process must be understood as a change process at the level of the society. The desired change must be seen in a systemic way to make sure that individuals are not just thinking about measurable improvements (such as time to assemble a gadget) but to also consider the societal change aspects (how to recognise the new values or how to know whom to follow)

Change in societies

The previous post described a typology of competitiveness that spans three levels. In order for individuals, hierarchies (e.g. firms) to improve their competitiveness or performance some kind of change of performance is required. While some of these changes are incremental and takes little effort, it may in many cases require a more concentrated effort to make a significant change. A few years ago Holger Nauheimer introduced me to three different levels of change that corresponds with the typology of competitiveness.

Firstly, there is change in the performance or behaviour of individuals. This may be related to an effort to improve competitiveness, or it may simply be a change of behaviour. Secondly, there are change processes in organisations in order to improve performance and competitiveness. Lastly, there may be changes at the level of the society that results in improved performance and competitiveness.

In the first instance, individuals try to change their performance or behaviour through a combination of self-motivation, self-discipline, practice and concentration. Whether the change is success depends largely on the self-control of the individual, and their own incentives and value system. For organisation to change may require small incremental improvements. In most cases a change process requires proper management, transparrent leadership, transparency and clear communication with staff. Management may decide to use a structured approach, drawing on topics such as organisational development, change management and project management. A combination of sanctions and incentives may be used to shape the behaviour of people in the organisation.

At the highest level, changes occur in societies. These changes typically affect the performance of individuals and organisation, and are also affected by the performance of individuals and organisations in the society. For leaders to influence the transformation in societies, clear leadership with strongly communicated values are required. In my imagination I can think of leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama at being particularly good at this. The challenge with change in societies is that it is difficult to manage, due to the fact that incentives and sanctions are weaker. There is also growing awareness of the psychology of crowds and how people in societies create and respond to signals of change. At the same time, we don’t have to think of whole societies changing. Malcolm Gladwell in “The tipping point” explains that when a small enough part of a society change, that it could lead to a tipping point where a larger scale change in behaviour takes place. This activism of change agents in societies are what seems to be keeping many societies in check at the moment, while at the same time promoting ongoing improvement and advancement.

From a systems perspective, the changes in individuals, organisations and societies should be recognised as complex human and social systems. There are many feedback loops, and delays between interventions and results. Furthermore, there are complex dynamics between different elements of the system. Therefore the results of decisions to change are often unpredictable, and care should be taken to create a habit of continous improvement combined with reflective exercises to make sure that the people in the system are able to respond to surprises and changes in the dynamics.

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