Instigating innovation: Where to start

I am currently focused on strengthening the manufacturing sector. Increasingly I am speaking at meetings, events, in boardrooms and in front of post graduate students about innovation. In this more engineering-minded world people are asking me the whole time for a few tips to get innovation going.

  • “How about an idea box?”
  • “How about canvassing ideas for a new product design from our customers?”
  • “How about rewarding our engineers with a profit share if they design a new product?”

The truth is, many manufacturing enterprises, especially the smaller ones, are too sliced into specific functions. Design designs, manufacturing manufacturers, salesmen become creative about delivery dates, and accounts, well, they count costs. This hierarchy makes information flows about potential improvements, new market opportunities and some old tricks that could become useful again very difficult. The cost of coordination in these enterprises are very high. In these silo-based organizations the costs of finding information, new signals and new ideas from outside the organizations is extremely high, and in general, these organizations struggle to learn.

A second problem is that most smaller manufacturers are mainly focused on product innovation. Which does not mean being focused on knocking the socks of their customers with frequent improvements or brilliant designs. Unfortunately many of the more traditional manufacturers are focused on how to get the price down or how to sort our quality issues. Which is actually a kind of process improvement, except that it is a very narrow kind of process improvement. The challenge with this incremental approach is that you can at most only grow and develop as fast as your customers can articulate what they want. Competitors or substitutes can also upset market relations by coming up with novel solutions that an incremental approach struggles to generate.

A third problem is that innovation is only done when customers demand it. It is passive. It lives in bursts to get things right, and then it settles into a problem solving mode until a next customer makes some unreasonable demands.

What many manufacturers lack, especially those in the more traditional sectors like metals and engineering, is a focused effort by top management to build an innovative culture that is actively trying to find product, process and business model improvements. It must be focused internally, in order to constantly rethink the business and its core processes, and it must be focused externally, to what customers and competitors are doing. The really good companies are also looking beyond current markets and competitors to new technologies and how they might shape the future.

This far I have addressed a business perspective. But research organizations, technology transfer centres and industry support centres can also get trapped in a low innovation culture.

I am now working with a few industry groups and research and technology centres to find out how these organizations can move beyond “catching up” and responding to change towards anticipating what is next. It sounds really simple, but by simply mobilizing more and more people in the organization to start searching for what’s next has already yielded amazing results in a short time. Maybe I am over optimistic, but already I can sense the innovation cultures change in these organizations as more and more people become involved in searching for possibility.

A quote that is attributed to William Gibson goes “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. Step one is get more people involved in searching for what is already here, it is just not recognized inside the firm or industry.

New series: Instigating Innovation

I have been developing a new capacity building method and training approach that brings together my work in innovation systems promotion  and my work on improving technology and innovation management. I call it “Instigating Innovation”.

I chose “instigating” because it has a more positive ring to it than provocation or incitement. While it is a noun with mainly a positive tone, it is a bit more aggressive than support, enable or encourage or even stimulating. I have been referred to in my past as an instigator of change so I thought this was a good idea.

Why was this effort firstly necessary and secondary so rewarding?

My work on innovation systems is mainly aimed at assisting meso-organizations such as technology transfer centres, research centres and universities to be more responsive to the needs of the private sector. While it only takes a few interviews by a senior decision maker from one of these institutions to a few leading enterprises to get the organization to improve its offering to the private sector, it does not solve the problem that these institutions often needs a continuous process of innovation itself. So while they can respond to the needs of the enterprises (for instance by launching a new service, or making a key technology available, etc), they often are not able to innovate constantly in order to anticipate what they private sector might need in the future.

With my other hat on, working in the private sector to improve the management of technology and innovation is focused on helping individual and on rare occasions, groups or networks of enterprises to formalize or improve their management of innovation. Here my challenge is that most enterprises innovate by accident, or have elements of an innovation management approach in place without knowing it. But it is not systematic nor is it consistent.

So both supporting institutions and enterprises lack some very basic frameworks to focus their existing development and learning processes to ensure not only short term results (new products & services, process improvements, cost reduction, etc) but to also ensure longer term success (playing in the right markets, selecting the right technologies, investing in the right kind of knowledge, partnering with the right people, etc). Furthermore, most enterprises and supporting institutions have something else in common: they often face resource constraints with the most versatile of their staff being involved in problem solving and not thinking about the future and what may be possible sometime down the line.

I set aside most of March and had great fun reading through my collection of articles, books, reports of past missions, and speaking to entrepreneurs and development practitioners I trust. Based on this investigation I decided on the following criteria for instruments to include in the Instigating Innovation module:

  1. Each instrument or concept must be relevant to both enterprises and meso-level organizations05 building innovative capacity small
  2. Each instrument must provide a very simple framework that can be illustrated on a flipchart
  3. The simple framework must be usable as a workshop format that allows people to reorganize or explore their current and future practices
  4. The frameworks must be scalable, both in depth (allowing pointers for a deep dive into an issue) and in width (useable for a product, issue, portfolio or the strategy of the organization as a whole).
  5. Lastly, I did not want to be the consultant with a project, I want to be the facilitator that enables change and that builds long term sustainability into the organizations that I work with.

This was a very rewarding exercise. Not only do I love reading about innovation, change and technology, I love finding better ways to explain these concepts. It was also great to find a way to connect my work on innovation systems, which often seems abstract, with the tough decisions that the enterprises that I work with must confront and address. I tend to work in the more technical domains dominated by academics, engineers, scientists and manufacturers, so finding a simple yet convincing way to add value to what these clever people do was important.

I will in the next few posts reveal a little bit more of the tools I selected and how it can be used.

Thank you for the EDA team in Bosnia and Herzegovina who motivated me to turn this idea into a capacity building format and who agreed that I try “Instigating Innovation” on their team during my visit to Banja Luka in May 2015!

Instigating Innovation in Banja Luka with the team from EDA

Instigating Innovation in Banja Luka with the team from EDA

Post 2: Technological capability: enabling enterprises to innovate

This is the second post in this series about building technological capability. I believe that this technological capability is best developed by an innovation systems approach with a particular view on emergent properties of the system. I have written before about the importance of taking a business perspective on an innovation system here and here. In the previous post I explained our concept of technological capability. I argued that one of the elements of technological capability is “The skill of the producers to imitate and innovate at product, process and business model levels. This is largely dependent on pressure to compete as well as pressure to collaborate with each other”.

In this post I will look a little deeper into this ability to innovate, collaborate and competition. For the remainder of this post I will take the perspective as a knowledge broker (or facilitator) working with an technology transfer center responsible to promote the upgrading and modernization of a sector.

One of the challenges of promoting an innovation system is that the technological capability in the private sector is not easy to see. Often we have to use proxy indicators such as exports to determine whether our industries are innovative and competitive. But export figures does not tell the whole story.

While the physical attributes of a product or component could tell us something about the sophistication of the product and the process behind it, even a simple metal component could be the result of an extremely sophisticated process that combines different knowledge domains, technological capabilities, materials (combining metallurgy and sand for instance in a foundry) and enterprises. Even if you have access to the premises, the tacit knowledge, experience and networks that are accessed to make a product is not always detectable.

Not only is it hard to determine what companies are able to do, it is also difficult to figure out what they cannot do. The fact that a manufacturer three years ago developed a successful product is not a guarantee that they can still do this. The finding that a particular function or technology is not present in an enterprise does not mean that they do not have access to this technology when they need it. When the entrepreneurs claim that they lack finance to do innovation this is often merely describing a symptom.

Enterprises that are able to adapt, change and improve not only their products but also their processes and business models are essential for any economy. This is about competition, but it is also about unlocking the capability of individuals, being more responsible with resources, and being responsible within a broader socio economic environment.

Finding ways to get enterprises to collaborate is very important for the health and dynamics of an innovation system. At the same time, stimulating competitiveness, not only at the level of price, but in terms of alternative approaches to solve a problem or in terms of different ideas and concepts is necessary. Often business associations and industry bodies are good with some limited collaboration, for instance on advocacy, but not so good at stimulating new (competing) ideas, approaches, models and solutions.

For a broker or intermediary it is still possible to move between and into enterprises to find opportunities for improvement. I am often amazed at how hesitant universities, technology intermediaries and research centres are to

Searching for opportunities for collaboration

Searching for opportunities for collaboration

embrace this privilege of being able to move around in an industry to see what is possible and what constraints or barriers to innovation exists. I will expand on that in a future post in this series.

For enterprises to find out what other enterprises can or cannot do is a lot more difficult. Firstly, by asking somebody if they can or cannot do something might give them a hint that a specific opportunity exists. Secondly, many companies do not like their competitors on their premises. Thirdly, there are many risks and costs associated with working with a competitor. Lastly, there is a risk that a competitor is able to exploit a joint opportunity better and thus gain more prominence in the market.

The ability of enterprises to find opportunities to work together is important as a means of reducing costs and gaining access to resources that individual enterprises cannot afford independently. For instance, skills development, joint marketing efforts are quite easy to cooperate on.

However, on issues such as joint research and development, procuring scarce and sophisticated equipment, or collaborating in a more intensive way such as a cluster often require an external broker. Often this kind of brokerage is hard to organize at the level of enterprises. Industry associations, Universities, technology intermediaries of government programmes aimed at industry promotion must step in. This is where I earn my bread and butter as many industry support programmes are ill-equipped to diagnose, articulate and facilitate these kind of firm level collaboration processes as part of improving an innovation system.

Let me bring all of this together. Enterprises that are striving to improve their performance, their value add and their overall competitive offering are an important element in an innovation system. These enterprises are expected to compete with each other, not just on price, but with different approaches, solutions and concepts. At the same time, we expect to see that these enterprises cooperate or collaborate on issues where there are benefits to do so. The dynamic of how enterprises interact with each other (collaborating and competing) is a direct contributor to the technological capability of a region, an industry or an economy. Where enterprises are not able to work together and at the same time compete with one another, a key ingredient to the technological capability is weakened. It is not always possible for enterprises to formulate or develop opportunities for collaborating due to many risks, costs and the difficulties associated with forming the cooperation concepts. This is a technology related market failure that sometimes can only be overcome by a broker-like service of Meso-level institutions such as technology intermediaries or education institutions.

Linking – Posts on innovation and science

Somewhere in December I started to rest and neglected reading some of my favorite blog sites. I have now caught up and here are some important posts that I would like to share with my readers.

One of my favorite authors on innovation, Tim Kastelle, made the following posts:

  • Innovation: Are you a gardener or an architect? You can guess that architects plan their innovations, while gardeners are sensitive to what emerges from their environment. When we deal with economic development, we have too many architects and too few gardeners.
  • Failure is ALWAYS an option. This post is also relevant for practitioners working in economic development. We must use our resources to assist our counterparts to experiment. Their resources are often to scarce or expensive for them to experiment with things that might just fail!

One of my other favorite authors, Duncan Green, posted an excellent summary of research on what White House Policy Makers want from Researchers? This is an important question for practitioners working on promoting science to industry and to government. He provides some interesting comments on the original research that is available from his blog article.

In future I will post articles on systemic thinking and complexity on the Systemic Insight Blog that I co-author with Marcus Jenal

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Innovation happens in a systemic context

I am preparing to conduct a 2 day training on diagnosing innovation systems. The participants will be mainly from universities, but there will be also some senior government officials responsible for promoting industrialization and R & D.

I already know what some practitioners will ask me. They will ask “why bother with an abstract concept like an innovation system if we can directly help enterprises to innovate?”

This is not a trivial question. Practitioners from universities that assist enterprises to develop new products, solve problems, conduct research or improve processes have direct evidence that their services are contributing to better results, new products, new markets; in other words, they are directly facilitating innovation.

However, helping one firm at a time is costly, and takes up time. While this kind of 1-on-1 support is necessary, it is not sufficient. Innovation is only to a small extent the result of isolated actions by producers and their technological intermediaries that support them. We need to recognize that there are many other facts that makes it more likely that whole industries, countries or regions will be competitive because they are innovative.

For industries, countries and regions to innovate, a more systemic approach is needed. It must be recognized that innovation rests on:

1. The interaction between companies, which include interaction with:

  • input suppliers,
  • equipment manufacturers,
  • competitors,
  • joint ventures,
  • alliances; and
  • demanding and sophisticated customers

2. The interaction between companies and their supporting institutions:

  • Education institution and training providers that are not only responsive, but creating the skills needed for tomorrow
  • technology extension that reduces the cost of experimentation and that overcomes high costs,
  • knowledge intensive business services and technical consulting services that adds value
  • Research and Development institutions and specialists that are accessible,

3. The framework conditions that determine:

  • the incentive to innovate (which is often related to the pressure by others to compete and try harder)
  • the direction of technical change
  • the overall market conditions domestically

4. The ability to leverage unique regional demand or sophisticated demand to create innovation eco systems

In Africa, we have to focus on using the unique regional demands placed on our industries, our products and our innovation systems. We have to use these unique demands to create supporting institutions, creative firms and specific products that responds to these needs. Because our domestic volumes are often low, we have to focus on making sure that we can better integrate different disciplines, technologies and knowledge bases. This will require much more than innovative products and innovative processes, but will demand that we also create innovative business models.


We have many examples of entrepreneurs who have (despite some very demanding local conditions) managed to create innovative products and processes that have been successful globally. The question we are trying to ask with an innovation systems approach is “how do we increase the chances of our innovators to be successful by creating a dynamic system around the entrepreneurs?”. We recognize that a creative entrepreneur or technologist is not enough to create a new momentum. The whole system around these entrepreneurs need to be dynamic and innovative in itself.

When we get institutions, experts and policies around entrepreneurs to be more innovative, we will immediately see results at the levels of firms, industries and regions.

Competitive advantage? Just how competitive are you.

I am working every day with businesses that are denying that the game has changed. Many believe it is just the government that is inventing new rules. This is true in some cases, but in most the government is also simply responding to global changes. The benefit of working outside of South Africa sometimes is that I get to see the domestic manufacturers from another angle. And the truth be told: South African firms are not as competitive as they would like to believe. Yes, there are exceptions, and we hail their achievements.

Tim Kastelle published an article today titled “here’s why you need to build your innovation capability“. When my eye caught the first sub heading I almost stopped reading. It shouts “Competitive advantage is dead. Or at least dying”. Blink. I believe in competitive advantage, and I believe that firms must figure out what it is that they have to do to remain competitive. I also know that once you found a gap in the market it takes hard work to remain competitive. Being a follower of his blog I plowed on.

Wait. Don’t let me spoil a good post. you have to read Tim’s argument for yourself. He argues that it is more important to become innovative than to have a competitive advantage. This is not a new argument in itself, but I like his angle on this. He then provides some simple steps that a manager can take to become more innovative even within a rigid organizational context where innovation may not necessarily be appreciated. His logic will also apply to not-for-profit organizations that don’t believe they compete even though they have to be able to compete for funding.

Reading this article also made me think of how we idolize some of the very famous firms now, but how we tend to forget how many great firms have dissolved here in South Africa and in other developing countries. It usually starts with a refocusing, then with selling off under-performing or non-core units. Then a merger of the remains with another firm with a “strategic fit”. Then, the end. They just slip from our conscious into the past.

Let me not close so depressing. Let me rather ask: how can you use the environment as an constraint that you have to consider in your business model and your innovation process?

If it constrains you it must constrain your competitors. Can getting around this give you an edge? In other words, can you put the constraint between you and your competitors?

Then ask: what are the constraints that are on the horizon, and how can I anticipate these constraints to get them between me and my competitors?

Thinking about this often might save you the anguish of trying to adapt while under pressure to also deliver.

I wonder how your answers will challenge your current view of how competitive you really are, and how innovative you are to respond to the changes in the environment.

Event Announcement: Diagnosing and strengthening local and regional innovation systems

On the 28th of August I will present a practical workshop in South Africa as part of the 5th Innovation Summit. Last year’s summit was one of the highlights of my year and I look forward to contributing to this event.

The workshop I will be presenting will concentrate on how to diagnose an innovation system, and then what to do about improving the innovation system. We will ONLY accept 20 participants, so early bookings are essential. The cost per participant is R3420 all costs included. For more information visit the workshop page here or click on the logo.

During the workshop we will cover the following content:

  • Main theoretical principles of innovation systems
  • distinguishing between national, local and regional and sector innovation systems
  • understanding the difference between innovation within firms, and innovation systems
  • The relationship between the region and innovative performance of industries
  • 4 lines of inquiry to diagnose the factors that affects the performance of a specific innovation system
  • Different analytical instruments that can be applied to understand elements of the innovation system
  • aligning public and private supporting institutions to the innovation needs of an industry
  • facilitating a process of incremental change within an innovation system

If you have already attended my workshop before, then take a look at some of the other great speakers that will be presenting pre-summit workshops before the Innovation Summit:

  • * Claire Janisch will take delegates through Biomimicry which is a totally new and different way to look for innovative solutions based on nature’s problem solving capabilities. Claire is back after feedback on her workshop was outstanding and “we want more”.
    * Dan Buchner from the Centre for Creative Leadership is coming from the US to share his knowledge and insight on innovative leadership skills – leading innovation teams and how to create a culture for innovation to thrive.
    * Prof Deon de Beer will have his very innovative Idea to Product Lab set up and fully functional. You will learn about the basics of design right through to producing your physical prototype during the workshop. If you have an invention waiting to be made into a physical product, this is the workshop for you.
    * Klaus Schnurr from the UK will take delegates through a process where he will teach you how to synthesis transferable best practice methods, tools and techniques and will explain the key steps that companies in Africa can use to explore trends and generate scenarios to identify innovation platforms for future growth.
    * Vasintha Pather’s workshop is ideal for anyone who facilitates thinking, workshops and sessions as a full time job or within an organisation. Using graphic facilitation methods enhances the learning and take aways for everyone

During the main event of the Innovation Summit I will present a paper about the importance of moving from business model to business model innovation.

I will also launch my book titled “The fundamentals of innovation system promotion for development practitioners” during the Innovation Summit.

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