Innovation is about “new change that is positive and implemented” says David Owens in his book Creative People Must be Stopped (Jossey-Bass 2012). His exploration of ways in which we kill innovation is highly relevant at a time when some ask whether sustainability is still possible. Work has taken me to many parts of the world, where bridging gaps in culture, in professional discipline, in world views, in appetite for change has always been a fascinating challenge. Below are pictures from these travels, showing images that caught my imagination. Accompanying each are some thoughts I put down, along the key steps of a purposeful innovation process that Owens defined. Feel free to send me your thoughts on any of these.
1. Stick to the herd or break new ground? Do you feel your organisation’s business model or product is fundamentally unsustainable, but don’t find the right moment to raise it with management? Do you expect to face a list of excuses why time, resource pressure, market demand etc may not allow for such questioning? Does the organisational culture and emotional chemistry of your group work against fundamental critique? Time to think beyond the box, and surprise management…
2. Identify the problem: Alexander von Humboldt said there are three stages in scientific discovery: (i) People deny that it is true. (ii) They deny that it is important. (iii) Finally they credit the wrong person. You have to confront these in your working environment. Focus on the big picture. Get your colleagues to ask the right questions, ones that can define possibly a whale of a problem. If a known problem, look beyond stereotypes. Get new perspectives on it.
3. Generate ideas: Generate wild ideas, while staying focused on the topic. Having the right combination of people brainstorming is influenced by the topic at hand. Does it relate to a specific service, a product range, the business model of your unit, or strategy of your organization? To get a helicopter view with longer term focus, it is surprising how few organizations make use of scenarios that stretch beyond the next 1-3 years. Are you getting external input? Need to take your managers out into nature for inspiration?
4. Assess constraints: Dutch poet Gerrit Komrij said translation creates space in a language. It lets the osmosis of human knowledge take place between cultures. Seeking to convince partners of new ideas, you may feel lost in translation. A persistent problem remains the inability of scientists, engineers, salespeople, accountants, lawyers etc to escape their jargon and communicate effectively across disciplines. The ability to find a common language and come to a common understanding of constraints / solutions is key…
4.1 Individual constraints: Is your creative ability constrained by your perceptions (e.g. stereotypes and biases about ‘relevant’ data), thinking (e.g. the way you traditionally frame problems) or ways of expressing (e.g. your usual language, preference for numbers or images, jargon)? You may have to display some of traits of what John Elkington called “Unreasonable People” (Harvard Business Press 2008). This includes the social entrepreneur’s passion in tackling apparently insoluble problems.
4.2 Group constraints: Are personal fears, egos, culture, composition, distance and/or working environment preventing your group from collaborating effectively and creatively? Remember key features of teamwork: working together (including virtually), common purpose, and mutual accountability. Conflict about process or task content can be constructive. But make sure your agenda remains focused, your process simple and clear. On content, think about bringing external colleagues or partners (e.g. your suppliers, topic experts) into the discussion.
4.3 Organisational constraints: Does your organizational culture resemble that of a clan, an adhocracy, a hierarchy or a market? As an organization grows in size, in different phases it often faces crises related to leadership (entrepreneurship), autonomy (collectivity), control (delegation), red tape (formalisation) and renewal (collaboration). In the process its organizational strategy, structure and resource allocation may have become outdated. Planning your mountain climb, do anticipate these crises.
4.4 Industry constraints: What are the parameters of supply, demand and competition in your industry? What capabilities do you need to outperform others sustainably? Facing the Innovator’s Dilemma (Christensen 2003), you may have to look beyond customers’ expressed needs – aware of longer term technological possibilities, sustainability trends and future green growth areas. Key is to convince suppliers (e.g. of capital) and customers that performance and quality is being redefined.
4.5 Societal constraints: Are old assumptions about historical preferences, social pressure and regulatory conventions preventing your organisation from testing alternative products and services? Some leading corporates are not waiting for consumers and business clients to vote against unsustainable products. They are “choice editing”, taking certain products off market shelves and introducing more sustainable alternatives. Make sustainable choice the default choice.
4.6 Technological constraints: eWaste not only contains toxic materials, but also valuable materials. Up to 60 elements from the periodic table can be found in complex electronics. Think of possibilities to reduce, re-use and recycle ICT equipment. Like chemicals development, this seems to be a domain where we seem surprisingly unaware of how much is unknown about the physical consequences of what we are doing. Is increasingly cheaper, lighter, short-lived products inevitable? What are the limits of dematerialisation?
4.7 Ecological constraints: In the 1970s they called it “limits to growth”. Recently European scientists defined “planetary boundaries” – key life support systems – within which we can develop safely. In three of these – the climate, biodiversity and nitrogen cycle – we’ve already overstepped the line. Scientists continue to struggle to get across the message. Slowly, more experts inside public and private enterprises get it. They begin to consider what radical innovations in the way we use nature can secure the very future of their organizations.
5. Set direction: In his emphasis on humanity, Nelson Mandela always stressed the fact of him being part of a collectivity. At the same time he spoke of the ability of a leader to enter unknown paths alone where those around him/her are not ready. It is that ability to move ahead and confront the risks of the unknown, whilst remaining fully aware of where you come from and the collective needs of your community. This is part of quality leadership, enabling you to set direction without losing your colleagues or clients, oftentimes leading from behind, inspiring them to rise above “business as usual”.
6. Design: Some-one I’m proud to have as relative on my Cape Townian grandmother’s side, Jan Smuts was a visionary organisational designer. His involvement in both world wars was followed by his leading role in the design of the League of Nations and later United Nations. His ability for interdisciplinary understanding was evident in his scientific, legal, political and philosophical writings. Take his 1926 book Holism and Evolution. Sustainability challenges today clearly deserve his sense of holism and interdisciplinary understanding.
7. Refine: You’ve prioritised relevant constraints, set direction towards preferred solutions, and started to play with core ideas in designing a new product. Now comes refinement, moving from diverging ideas to convergence. This may involve making trade-offs, e.g. between resource inputs, between stakeholders, between short & long term. Early in the innovation process, don’t kill innovation by prematurely pushing ROI requirements. But now is the time to look at these closely. As the ant told the elephant, big successes start with small steps.
8. Implement: At the end of annual retreats with his Top 100 employees, Steve Jobs used to ask them: “What are the ten things we should be doing next?” He would often challenge them to cut these to three, and then it was down to marching the soldiers. No matter how top down or flexible you want to be in rolling out a new product, remember that organizations typically fail when it comes to the “implementation” of new strategies. Napoleon said ‘”strategy is a simple art, it is all about execution”. Below I address some key features of follow up and execution…
8.1 Nurture the network: Organisation is not the same as order. It comes from “organ”, implying ability to adapt (or die). Your organisation may have much to learn from the functional efficiency of biological systems. Amid skepticism about the efficiency of matrix models, some have refocused on “structured networks”. Consider the revolutionary model of Wikipedia(2001): global, decentralised and participative. Key is to nurture a learning organisation, using IT intelligently to communicate and avoid fragmentation.
8.2 Work your teams: Remember the need for people to see themselves in the new plan, feeling co-ownership and mutual accountability. Your journey of change will need to provide for things like effective monitoring, true delegation, regular feedback, measurement & reporting, innovative communications, realistic speed (time frames) and celebrating milestones. And in addition to instrumental ties, don’t forget the value of emotional ties associated with relationships (e.g. personal support, energy and trust).
8.3 Keep track of newtech developments: Look out for new technologies that may enable you to drastically cut the variable and fixed costs, direct and indirect, of producing and delivering your new product. New technologies may also provide quality improvement opportunities – e.g. new product service systems that you can deliver with value chain partners. Focus on integrated approaches that consider (as yet) external but strategic impacts and dependencies on Natural Capital. And show the ability to discontinue old products – resource inefficient, a drain on society and ecology.