How to kickstart innovation in my team?

This is the question that I receive most often from leaders. Where do I start with improving innovation in my organisation or department?

Often this goes along with a sigh and a statement like “once upon a time we were very innovative, but then we settled down”.

Often, the leaders that ask me about innovation somehow feel that their own lack of creativity and courage has led to the stagnation of innovation in their area of responsibility. Instead of teaching leaders some of my favourite innovation tricks, concepts or methods, I use this opportunity to rather try and shift their attention to creating the conditions for innovation.

Now innovation tricks, methods and concepts are in oversupply. Just go to the business section in any bookstore and you will find lots of recipe books. But these tricks and recipes are less important if one can induce a cultural shift towards exploration, responsibility and learn about what is possible.

So here is the advice that I regularly dish out.

As a leader, you do not have to announce that things will be different from here on. This just makes it harder for you and the team to learn about what is possible. Also, announcing a new vision and strategy puts the focus on your brilliant strategic skills. Rather avoid this.

Instead, start by modelling what you want your organisational culture to be. Again, no announcements.

Without much fuss, ask some of your teams or leaders

“if you could prioritise investment (time, money, people) in any area of this organisation, where would you want to explore?”.

Then agree on a budget with the people taking responsibility, a time frame, what resources they would need, and feedback mechanisms (how will we which ideas are working, and which are not working as desired). Encourage them to start soon, but to manage their usual responsibilities as well. Now your job is to help the rest of the organisation, like finance, admin, marketing, production or communications to adapt their support offerings and procedures to help this exploration effort. Make sure this effort receives all the support and resources that they need. Use the innovative efforts of one group to also be creative about other areas of the organisation. Your attention might be more valuable in getting the rest of the organisation to adapt and learn.

Dave Snowden always reminds us that in uncertain contexts, we should encourage the development of portfolios of safe-to-fail experiments. Single experiments are almost like bets in a casino, while portfolios help us to become more aware of constraints and our ability to influence systems. Challenge your team to come up with a small portfolio of experiments that can be tried to explore or better understand the area of exploration they have chosen. A safe-to-fail experiment is low-risk, meaning that even failure becomes valuable because it tells us about the system. Encourage the team to reflect regularly on the portfolio of experiments, and allow them to allocate resources from those that appear to be giving desirable results while dampening those experiments that appear to be going in the wrong direction. Perhaps you can also try to encourage people from other parts of your organisation to participate or closely follow the process, but do not let the exploration team get too big as this might slow it down or make learning through failure more socially risky. You can always wait a few days and then encourage another team in another area to also identify an area of exploration.

With this effort, you will encourage the practice of reflecting on the performance of the organisation and how different work areas support or enable innovation. Also, you will build the confidence of teams to set their own priorities in improving sub-systems, routines and arrangements, and to then manage their own innovation projects. By encouraging the development of portfolios of safe-to-fail experiments, you are accelerating the distributed learning in the organisation about what is possible and what is harder to do. At the same time, you are raising the awareness in the organisation of how efforts, energy and other patterns are interrelated.

Finally, you will also model that your role is to synthesize the support from other parts of the organisation. Your role is not to be the lead innovator or lead expert, but to be the conductor and chief innovation space creator.

Maybe this is the punch line. When organisations don’t innovate anymore, it is most likely because of too much management. Perhaps your past efforts of creating stability and structures have now become too rigid (or too successful – gasp!)

Instead of taking charge of innovation, encourage your people to explore in a structured way, to learn about what is possible in their areas of work. Your role is to encourage people to set priorities, and then let them learn about what is possible through portfolios of safe-to-fail experiments. In organisations that have become very set in its routines and systems, your job would most likely be to make sure the rest of the organisation can adapt where needed. But again, you don’t have to change the rules. Let the admin, finance, HR and operations people assess how the systems and procedures may be making innovation, novelty creation and improvement harder based on the focused innovation efforts of your teams. Rather than protect the systems, protect the innovators. You can manage the risk by ensuring that all experiments are safe-to-fail and low risk.

Go try this and let me know how it goes. Remember, the secret is to not announce this as something new. It is not a new vision. It is not a new strategy. Rather just model this behaviour of focused exploration, encouraging people to take responsibility for areas where they want to see better results. Make sure that all supporting functions are adapting and evaluating their own systems based on the learning from the innovation efforts. Then focus on making sure all the innovation efforts have the resources to implement their ideas, and the encourage innovators and support functions to learn from those efforts that don’t go so well.

You have just kickstarted your innovation culture.

After doing this for a while, any innovation recipe book will give you some tools, tricks and hacks that will work much better once more of your people are able to create, evaluate and learn about their role in your organisation’s innovation culture.

Image by tayphuong388 from Pixabay

Leveraging the novel capabilities of newly acquired technologies

The measures applied to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic have certainly forced many organisations, teams and individuals to use digital technologies in new ways. However, I doubt whether the new ways of using technologies have transformed the way organisations work, or the way that work is organised. Let me explain.

The term “technology” is a combination of two Greek words, techne and logosTechne means art, skill, craft or the way, manner or means by which a thing is gained.  Logos means word, the utterance which expresses inward thought. 

This means that technology is the expression of how we do things. It is the way in which we achieve certain outcomes. We are constantly using many different technologies without giving the process much thought. Language is a technology, the software I am using to type this blog is a technology, and my smartphone is also a technology. These and many other technologies that I use on a daily basis are in many ways interconnected. The coffee machine is one of my favourite technologies. Technologies are not just about physical objects, software and systems. Behaviour, routines and recipes are also technologies. For instance, the way in which a meeting is chaired is a social technology, which in turn is enabled by many other physical and social technologies. The organisations we work in are social technologies, and even the communities we live in are nested structures of physical and social technologies. The technologies that we use and depend on often incorporate many features of our environment.

When we substitute an existing technology with another new technology, we not only replace the “what”, but the new technology also typically allows us to change the “how” and perhaps even the “why” of what we are trying to achieve. For instance, when we replace a physical meeting with a digital meeting application, the digital technology allows us to change the how, the why and the way of conducting the meeting. If we only substitute one part of the “old” technology, we are not fully embracing the capabilities of the new technology. This means that we have not transformed the how or the why, we have merely replaced the what.  If we only replace the what of the technology, there could be an incremental improvement in our efficiency or costs, but we are still limited by the capabilities and functionalities of the older technology.

I received this image via Whatsapp so I do not know who to credit.

I have been thinking about the different levels of taking up the capabilities that new technologies offer us. Here is my first attempt at describing it.

The simplest way of adapting a new technology is to use it for the features that replicate the features we are already familiar with from the old technology. It is basically a substitution. If you use only the functions that you associate with the old technology, you are still largely constrained by the limitations of the previous technology.

Adoption means that you have to change how you use the new technology, such as by making changes in other related technologies. Perhaps some functions of the newer technology are much easier now, and may perhaps even make certain procedures and processes redundant. Adoption implies that you have to change some arrangements and behaviours, and some of the logic of how you use the technology. 

When you adapt a new technology, you may even have to tweak the new technology itself to fit into your context or to work with the other technologies you have chosen. To adapt a technology requires some level of mastery, either of the technology itself or of the other supplementary technologies that you are using. Geeks often overcome the limitations of a new technology by combining it with other (incomplete) solutions. 

The highest form of leveraging new technology is to integrate the new technology into how you do things, and then re-organise and adjust the technologies around the new capabilities. There are two simultaneous movements here. You adapt the technology and at the same time you reorganise, or remodel, your process and organisations around this new capability. As you remodel why, how and what you are doing around this new capability, you are able to adjust, tweak, modify or even discontinue other technologies. In real life this often happens in an iterative process of mastering a new technology. As you discover new possibilities to improve the arrangements, you reorganise yourself around newly recognised capabilities to take advantage of them. This is when we leverage the functionality of new technologies, and in many cases the newer technologies could even make some complementary older technologies work better. 

Then there is the concept of exaptation, which is like co-opting something for a purpose for which it was never intended, like off-label use of a medication. An example of exaptation is where equipment developed to scan for fine cracks in aircraft wings has been modified and re-engineered for scanning for tumours.

One of my favourite quotes by Bill Gates is: 

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.

Bill Gates

I think Mr Gates will forgive me for substituting the word “automation” with “digital”. Digital technologies will amplify poorly designed, undermanaged and inadequately thought-through processes. These technologies will reveal our inability to think through, consider and respond to the capabilities offered by newer technologies and the remodelling that they require. That is why it is not so easy to take a process that works in the physical world and just replicate it online. Amazon is far more than a bookstore with a webpage. If you want to use the new capabilities offered by the network of digital technologies to their fullest extent, you have to re-think your complete business, your relations with suppliers, clients, banks and more. 

To really harness newer digital technologies demands that we reconsider and think through the underlying and complementary processes, systems and arrangements. These are all enabling technologies. But we must also think of the constraints, side-effects and downsides of the existing technologies we are replacing. Key questions to ask are:

  • Can we break with some of the dependencies that we no longer need? 
  • By overcoming some of the constraints of our legacy arrangements and capabilities, where can we innovate in the how, the why and the what we do?
  • How can we manage some of the new limitations or challenges of using a newer technology? How do we overcome the hesitation of users to change how they engage with us?
  • Which inherited arrangements, legacies, rules, habits and routines no longer serve us to reach out goals?
  • What does fully using the new capabilities demand from us in terms of product, process, system and business model innovation and change?

It is not always necessary to think through all the implications of adopting and harnessing a new technology beforehand. We usually select a new technology based on explicit features that we believe are beneficial to or more effective than current technologies. We often discover new capabilities as we use a new technology. The Covid-19 pandemic has made this decision for many of us. At other times, shifts by clients, competitors or government regulations force us to confront new technologies. As we learn how to use a new technology, we discover potential adaptations, tweaks and new arrangements. The problem is that this can sometimes take a very long time. In order not to fall behind, or be seen as incompetent or ignorant, we have to purposefully explore these new capabilities if we wish to be faster than our competitors and increasingly, our digitally conversant clients, suppliers, competitors, regulators and, dare I say, children?

In conclusion, if you have merely replaced a physical meeting with a digital meeting, or a physical document with a digital document, you have not yet transformed. You have just substituted one way of doing things for another, and you will most likely revert to the old way when conditions allow. If you have simply substituted one way for the other, you will still be held back by the constraints of the older technology. 

When you harness the capabilities that come with adopted new technologies and then change the “what” and even the “why” of how you are doing things, then you have transformed. In most cases this requires us to let go of some of our ways of organising ourselves around earlier capabilities.

Now is the time to think about what is next after what is next

Updated and improved on 18 April 2020, Originally published, March 19 2020

I have found the past month a bit surreal, to say the least. When I travelled through an international airport at the end of January I saw paramedics treating a person who had collapsed. The paramedics were not wearing masks and gloves, while a gaping growing crowd gathered to watch, despite the fact that they already knew about the Covid-19 virus. That was the moment when I realised that I would have to suspend my travels for a while.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received many calls and emails from business and government leaders asking me to help them to think through their options. Some even asked for scenarios. First, let me explain why just jumping straight to scenarios is not a good idea right now with all the contradictory information we are being inundated with.

With all the uncertainty and confusion right now, public and business leaders need some vision of the future to work towards. Hence the image of this blog is a meerkat looking away from whatever the others are occupying themselves with. But different leaders have slightly different motivations. While some people require very little information to make decisions, others need lots of evidence and data. The first group are most likely the innovators and creators of new markets and business models, while the second group may be those that are more focused on incrementally improving what already exists or what is in place. I will refer to the first group as the innovators and the second group as the system optimisers.

We need both innovators and system optimisers to create the future, but they are driven by different motivations and often take different paths if you do not get them to explore a shared mental map. The first group, the innovators, needs a problem to explore and space to try new things, while the system optimisers need a target to reach and sufficient authority over resources to get there. The system builders will look at the facts and data and will think you are crazy if you want to talk about a post-crisis positioning strategy. The innovators will go nuts if you ask them to improve the system when they feel that the way the world works is being questioned. You need these groups to work together – one shared picture, and different yet complementary skills.

So if I had to help your team think about the options right now, a first step would be to think of what could possibly happen next. Yes, it is that simple. Maybe it takes only a few minutes. But this gives us some possible trajectories, and we can explore the ups and downs of each. At least we then have some options to choose from.

I agree that looking at the immediate options is not enough. That is too short term. So we have to ask a second round of “what’s next?” questions and try to explore the decision branches from the previously identified possibilities. Now the innovators can start thinking about new arrangements, new connections, new formulations of what already exists. The system builders will most likely already be a little frustrated with all the hypothetical talk, so they need to be enabled to start thinking of what must be decided or put in place to go down certain paths while avoiding others.

I know this is very simplistic, but my experience right now is that it is very hard to ask people to think six months or three years in advance. But for us to shape what is coming, we have to get more leaders thinking about what is emerging and what is emerging after what is next. This is hard to type, but it is even harder to ponder.

I know that some of my mentors, like Dave Snowden, will baulk at me even proposing a two-by-two matrix as the basis for a scenario exercise, so I hope he will not see this post. Using a simple matrix is a straightforward way to get people to think of alternatives that they struggle to consider if you don’t take them on a structured thinking journey.

Here is a simple scenario matrix that I have been using this week to guide some of my clients. They are all facing a lot of uncertainty about how to make decisions in the next few weeks.

On the Y-axis at the top is “Change initiated by us”, and at the bottom is “Change initiated by others” (Yes, I know that looks as though it is the past tense, but just humour me). On the X-axis on the left is “Past orientation, focused on evidence and recent data” and on the right “Future orientation, focused on what is possible next … and next”.

Yes, again the immediate focus. My sense right now is to think shorter term just for a few days. Just get your team to start building a shared mental map. Then you can push further into the future.

Let us now think through these quadrants. Simply combine the statement on the Y-axis with the statement on the X-axis. You can start in any of the quadrants. I find it easier to start on the left in the past, combined with changes initiated by others. This is what we have to respond to.

Here is a write-up of a telephone conversation I had with a client today. It was surprisingly similar to a conversation I had yesterday with another client in the Not-for-Profit sector. You can skip this if you want to.

We started at the bottom left (which made sense to me because he felt that his hand was being forced, even though he understood that based on the evidence the government was probably making the right decisions). We spoke about the self-isolation of his team, the rapidly worsening statistics, and what it would mean for his organisation if the government (and others he depends on) made the obvious decisions. We explored which data was reliable and valuable enough to track.  Next, we moved to the top-left quadrant. Based on the data and evidence, what decisions should he be making? He immediately realised there were some pretty obvious decisions that he simply had to announce. We also reflected on what he had already done and explored how he knew that he had made the right decisions. 

Then we moved to the bottom right quadrant. We started to consider what changes might be made by others next. And next. He realised that we might move to complete quarantine if the government felt it was necessary. He realised that he would be forced to close large parts of his business, so he could explore with his team what they would need to keep some operations viable. He realised that if his suppliers closed, he would be in trouble, so he had to remain in close contact with them to know what their plans were for the next few days.

In the top-right quadrant, he realised that he had to consider a “dry run” to practice with his team to work together even when they were not together. Some other ideas were also explored. At this point, he could take it further. He had enough ideas to work with. I still wanted to explore the “what next” after the “ what next”, but he said we could talk about that the next day.

These are some notes of a long conversation that I had with a client. At the end of the conversation he could already sense that he could move from being responsive to being pro-active, and how he could involve his team in this exploration.

Please let me know how you are working with your team to build and maintain a shared mental map of your situation and your options. Do not be shy, use the comments block below!

Thanks to Harald Jarche, who is always reminding his readers rather to share half-baked ideas than to try and perfect them. All the errors are my fault, not his.

How to use remote team collaboration

This is a grammar edited and improved version of an earlier post.

I am supporting teams that are using Slack, MS Teams or other remote collaboration applications. Some of my clients also use Viber or WhatsApp.

In our company, Mesopartner, we’ve been using Slack for a few years. It’s not my purpose here to review these different applications, but rather to share some insights on how we and some of our clients have configured channels for conversations.

I like to look at remote collaboration tools not only as communication and coordination tools but as an essential element of strengthening knowledge development and as a learning environment. 

Wherever I am supporting teams to improve their shared sense-making and innovation cultures, I ask them to create the following channels:

#Reading and listening – here people can share what they are reading and listening to.

#Working out loud – here people can check in and explain to the rest of the team what is currently foremost on their mind. The intent is not only to inform others, but also to help the person making the post to increase their own coherence or narrative of what they are devoting their attention to and why.

Now, with the COVID-19 virus, more and more people are working from home. In our own company, we have created a channel called #Coping-with-Corona where we can all share our experiences of being in different stages of self-isolation.

We have also created groups of channels. For instance, we have a group of channels where the names all start with “support” followed by the topic. So in our “#support_mac” channel we help each other with tips, problem solving and advice, while in the “#support_blogging” channel we encourage and assist each other with blogging. 

We have groups of channels for projects and important topics, and to coordinate our internal company functions such as publications, etc.

Sometimes team leaders struggle to understand the value and function of the informal banter that often takes place in the different channels. This informal exchange is important because it makes it possible for teams to weave together explicit knowledge from the misformed or semi-thought-through statements, the half-baked ideas, the intuitions and the sarcasm that give expression to tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is often hard to express. Furthermore, tacit knowledge is often revealed when doubts or confidence are expressed, like when somebody replies “I am just not so sure about your approach”, or “Yes, you should try that, in my experience that always works”. Tacit knowledge often develops iteratively during many conversations.

The real challenge with encouraging people to share their tacit insight is that we all prefer to share our feelings and insight only with people whom we trust, or people whom we believe will be able to use our ideas. That is why reducing the chatter to only factual and precise formulations is not helpful. Often individuals will share their advice when they feel that others have shown in the past that the shared ideas are useful.

A final point. These remote collaboration tools are so useful because we can create channels when we need them, or we can close or archive them when they have served their purpose. Rather make more channels, and tolerate some cross-posting, than to have a few channels that are so busy that people fall behind in a day or two. Encourage your team members to reduce internal emails and to use the remote collaboration tools and you will immediately see an improved culture of sharing, deliberation and joint sense making.

Supporting your team from a distance during self or imposed isolation

This is a grammar edited and improved version of an earlier post.

I have been receiving many messages from clients and friends asking for advice on how to work from home. I have organised the requests into three groups.

The first group has been asking me how I manage my time.

What works for me is to organise my day into half- or quarter-day blocks of time during which I focus intensively on one topic. I try to schedule the more conceptual or tougher mental tasks for the mornings, and phone calls, Skype calls and admin for the afternoons. Also, I found that dressing for work helps me to stay focused. I don’t necessarily dress as formally as I would when attending a meeting, but I generally try not to look like I am going to spend the day on the beach.

The second group has been asking me how they can keep their teams connected while everyone is working from home.

This is a little harder. If your team is doing knowledge work, then I would check with them what kind of information and knowledge exchange they need to do their work. Don’t just have web meetings to stay in touch (although there is a need to remain socially connected), use meetings and platforms such as Slack or MS Teams to exchange views and ideas on what really matters. I have seen some of my clients doing daily check-ins and half-daily updates of what everyone is doing. I don’t really think this helps unless everybody’s tasks are clearly defined. Most people, even when they are at work, are overwhelmed by all the information streams that appear to be important, although this does actually help people to make better decisions or do their jobs better.

During this time when people are working from home it will also become apparent which team members are truly independent and able to build their area of work without your direct supervision. Some of your team members will love this, and will find the “freedom” to work at their own pace exhilarating. However, some people will also feel insecure, and they may even feel distressed and need more direction from you. But please, whatever you do, do not treat everybody the same. Give those who can self-direct their work the space and the freedom, while spending more time with those that need direction. 

Lastly, it is not possible to remotely keep all your people working productively. There are all kinds of distractions at home: kids, pets, snacking and other comforts. It takes a lot of discipline to work from home, I know! Some people will simply not perform as expected. I suggest you focus on the key team members who are critical to keep your organisation going and try to support them as best as you can. Give those doing operational or administrative tasks clear instructions. But don’t expect everybody to perform.

The third group of clients having been asking me how they can use this abnormal situation to re-think areas of their business from a strategy and innovation perspective

Most of our thinking is shaped by recency bias. We tend to think of the issues that dominated our conversations and attracted our attention in the last week or two. This bias makes it hard for us to reflect on what we are not paying sufficient attention to, or what else may be happening but which we may be filtering out. 

Right now, everyone is talking about COVID-19. A few weeks ago everyone in South Africa was talking about the pending rating agency downgrade and the state of our economy and the poor state of our state-owned companies. I guess that in your workplace these topics are also taking up mental bandwidth, like the financial year-end and many others.

I suggest that you use this time away from the watercooler and the coffee machine to think beyond the dominant and recent topics that almost magnetically drew your attention. What are those issues that often do not get enough mental bandwidth? Some suggestions are the following:

  • What have you postponed thinking about simply because it feels like a lot of effort to do while there is so much else that requires your attention?
  • How innovative is your culture in your organisation really? Is this culture widespread or dependent on just a few individuals who are willing to try new ideas and make fools of themselves?
  • How strong is your team and organisation at making sense not only of what is happening, but what is emerging?
  • How much time are you spending imagining how things could be in the future and then finding ways to go and fetch those stuck in the present or the past?

Let me know what you are trying, and what seems to be working for you and your team. Your comments and suggestions are useful to all my other clients and friends who are reading this blog.

Don’t waste time holding out for “normal” to return

Like you, I am spending hours each day in video calls with clients, friends, family and people I am trying to encourage during the COVID19 lockdown.

Have often do you hear people say “in two weeks this will be over?” or, “I think I am coping well under the circumstances?”.

How often do you hear people exclaim “when things get back to normal then…”?

In my mind, I cannot imagine us going back to normal.

In our country, too many poor people and small enterprises would have been affected by the pandemic. Even if no virus comes anywhere near them, their worlds have changed. Savings may be depleted. Suppliers and clients may not re-open. Governments resources to support the economy may be greatly reduced. All of this will not be undone on the day or the weeks after the lockdown ends.

Yes, I know that some things may also change for the better. Maybe some new entrepreneurs will grow the confidence to start their ventures. Hopefully, the inadequate infrastructure and the lack of basic services in large parts of our country will not be forgotten in the next planning cycles. I believe many new champions in essential services and goods will be tempered during this time. I understand that not everybody will be affected to the same extent.

I know this all sounds very gloomy. My question is, why settle your hope on getting back to normal?

What is normal anyway?

Do we really want to go back there? A few months ago, we were all complaining about how terrible the “normal” was. Just think back to the headlines about Brexit or the local politics. Just think back to how busy you were, of the things that bothered you. I can recall conversations with many of my clients about how they never have time to read or think, or how disempowered their staff were.

I urge you to set a higher standard than “the normal”. I beg you to use this time to purposefully design and build the kind of enterprise and innovation culture that you and your team desire. Start forming the new habits, routines and patterns right now.

When you plan, don’t (only) plan for the days after the lockdown ends. You have to think about how the world has changed. Carefully consider the state of the people that you depend on, in your organisations, your suppliers and your clients. Think of fundamental shifts that you have to respond to, but also ponder the things that you can influence or change. While imagining the new normal you want to shape, be mindful of the physical and emotional states of the people that you have to work with. It may take some extra effort to encourage and lift up the people around you.

Above all, you cannot now afford to only think in the short term. You cannot only think of your local context. During this COVID19 pandemic, we could hear and see daily reports of how our countries are interdependent. Our own socio-economic well-being is tied to what is going on in the rest of Africa and the world.

Lastly, don’t be selfish. Think of your organisation’s role in the communities all your people interact with, of the society and the environment you are part of. Make sure, that as far as possible, your organisation is unleashed to make this space that you work in better.

Much of innovation is mundane

I love facilitating thinking and reflection session with teams. However, there is one kind of request that I often decline, and that is a request to facilitate an annual innovation strategy rethink. I get many such requests towards the end of the year as organisations start thinking of the coming year and their “agenda” for innovation.

I don’t believe that it is possible to have a meaningful strategy meeting of minds that lasts one or two days, while the rest of the year everyone is busy scurrying about in their own trenches chasing deadlines, feeling squeezed and under pressure. You cannot make up for all the miscommunication, lack of communication and poorly moderated meetings just by calling everyone together for a day or two. Innovation is what happens on normal days, not in an extraordinary workshop.

I understand that people want creative innovation meetings and workshops. I love facilitating those. They feel their team deserve something that is fun, creative and mind blowing. That’s how more meetings should be in any case. Yet in my experience, a large part of innovation is rather mundane. In great organisations mundane innovations are carried out daily by people who are equipped and encouraged to reflect, dig deeper, re-think and make adjustments to issues that they feel matter in their work, even if their improvements or changes do not lead to new products, revenue streams or new markets.

I can think of at least two variations of mundane innovations.

The first variation consists of innovations in areas that appear to be mundane. These innovations are small changes in areas where we are so used to cumbersome processes or sub-optimal arrangements that we no longer even notice them. Important improvements can be made simply by tackling mind-numbingly dull areas in administration, bureaucracy, documentation or client interfaces. Finding ways to make backroom operations work better in support of frontline staff can free resources and mental bandwidth. Figuring out how something can be redesigned or reconceptualised with the benefit of hindsight can improve things going forward, even this cannot be quantified directly in profits or savings.

The second variation relates to innovations where the process itself feels mundane. This is where people have to sweat the details and stick with it until the task is done. Measure, adapt, retry, go back to the start. Repeat. Or spend time arguing or fleshing out two or three possible alternatives to enable better decision making, even if it feels like there are no real alternatives.

How leadership deals with the mundane everyday tasks of innovation is ultimately what makes one organisation healthier than another. Allocating resources to address the boring details outsiders don’t even see is often what makes organisations resilient and able to continuously adapt. It is the ability to set aside time, space and resources to enable people to dive deep into details, problems or ideas. In organisations that are able to continuously pay attention to the details it is much easier for more ambitious product, process or business model innovations to be implemented, as people throughout the organisation understand the discipline and process of innovation because they are encouraged to innovate often.

How are those seemingly mundane innovations enabled or encouraged?

  • Management must make some tools available, such as whiteboards, flipcharts, good coffee and snacks, spreadsheets and marker pens. Perhaps software and a facilitator could also be provided.
  • Management must create space. It may even be necessary to hold meetings without agendas and chairpersons, do explorations without reports or experiments without written documentation, or maybe a period with no electronic communications could be created so that people can dive deep into topics without having to manage or be managed. I cannot facilitate problem solving, sense making or innovation meetings in a boardroom consisting of a table and four walls. Perhaps spaces with glass walls, comfortable chairs and furniture that can be re-arranged would be more suitable.
  • Management must acknowledge, encourage and celebrate small improvements. If the intent of the organisational unit is clear, and the relationship to other functions in the organisation is understood, then people will be able to figure out where to optimise, where to re-think and where to let go. People should be encouraged to work together in small groups on topics, issues, opportunities or problems that draw their attention or that seem important in their context. Opportunities for organisations to make small changes behind the scenes are like antibodies attacking an invader in an organism.

Much of innovation seems mundane because we so often associate innovation with breakthrough products, smoothly integrated systems and creative teams that seem to require no management or direction. But all of these are made possible by allowing people to get on with attending to the details, to sink their teeth into things that matter, which might appear senseless to management.

Strengthening the absorptive capacity of your organisation

This post is about the concept of absorptive capacity. When you are trying to improve a company, an industry, or promote innovation and learning in a region, this concept is very important. It is often poorly understood. My clients in the education sector always relate absorptive capacity to education levels. While this is true, it is only a part of the story. Business people, on the other hand, tend to focus their innovation efforts on product and process improvements, and they generally tend to not think much about their organisations absorptive capacity, nor do they think about how the environment beyond their enterprise affect their absorptive capacity.

Let me begin by unpacking absorptive capacity. My favorite recent definition is provided by UNCTAD (2014:23), where they define absorptive capacity as:

“The ability to recognize the potential value of new or novel knowledge and technology, and to transfer and assimilate it with the objective of bringing to market a product or a service. It determines if and to what extent a firm, an industry or, indeed, an economy, can use existing and new knowledge to compete”

Some researchers think of absorptive capacity as a completely distinct concept from innovation systems, but I do not agree with this. In our view technological capability (as captured by the description of the innovation system) describes the overall system dynamics: in essence at an aggregate level where it creates an ecology, whereas absorptive capacity describes the capability of individuals and smaller teams (such as a management team) within this ecology to identify knowledge gaps or new uses of knowledge, and to identify and access external knowledge and then combine it with existing knowledge. It is very hard to imagine what a dynamic innovation system would look like if it did not have strong absorptive capability at the levels of individuals, teams, organisations and networks.

This argument is based on the seminal work of Cohen and Levinthal (1990)who argued that:

  • Firms invest in basic research less for particular results than to be able to provide themselves with the general background knowledge to enable them to rapidly apply scientific and technological knowledge through their own innovations, or to respond quickly when competitors come up with a major advance. Thus firms do research to increase their knowledge base and learning which enables them to innovate when they need to.
  • The relationship between the absorptive capacity of firms and the broader technological capability present in the environment causes firms to be highly sensitive to the context within which they operate. This larger context not only provides inspirational ideas, but the implementation of the ideas depends on resources from this larger context, such as technical experts or specialists, professional, management and vocational skills, and even standards and financial or regulatory systems.

Cohen and Levinthal (1990) contend that the absorptive capacity of firms is more likely to be developed and maintained as a by-product of routine activity when the knowledge domain the firm wishes to exploit is closely related to its current knowledge base. This is different when a firm wishes to acquire and use knowledge that is more distant from its ongoing activity. The firm must then dedicate effort and resources to create absorptive capacity. It is hard to imagine how this can be done without reaching out to networks of institutions, skilled and professional employees, and networks of suppliers who are all striving to increase their relevant knowledge.

Hidalgo (2015) explains that with the increasing sophistication of technology, the ability of organisations to have all the relevant knowledge in-house is diminishing. Therefore knowledge is being increasingly spread among larger numbers of actors, who need to work together dynamically to produce and transact. Knowledge tends to flow more easily where there is a certain density of diverse actors. I have written about this often on my thinking out loud site.

This means that absorptive capacity is a dynamic capability that influences the nature and sustainability of a firm’s competitive advantage. As a side remark to policy makers, it means that incentivising R & D and then measuring patents is again only capturing half of the story. Most of the “R & D” that companies undertake are about deepening understanding, mastering variation and performance, and learning about boundaries, failure and so on.

Absorptive capacity is about knowledge and the ability to gain more knowledge, often through a process of iterative learning. Some years ago I wrote that  that this knowledge may be acquired in two different ways (Cunningham, 2012):

  1. In a solitary way where knowledge is gained through experimentation(as an individual or as part of a team) without much communication or interaction with other external actors, or through a process of deductive reasoning.Or it may involve a combination of tinkering and deduction (often referred to as deductive tinkering).
  2. By purposeful interaction with other external agents involving personal or non-personal communication with other people, specialists and knowledge sources.

The first point is mainly about absorptive capacity of the organisation or individuals. However, the second is a combination of absorptive capacity of the team, and the broader environment in which the organisation can reach out to other experts beyond its own boundaries. I argue that a large part of the knowledge a firm need is available internally, namely the knowledge of its engineers, managers, technicians and other employees.Their knowledge is partially acquired externally through previous formal training, and partially through a cumulative process of learning-by-doing. This internal knowledge, which is available at any given time, is the main innovation resource of a firm.  It is often highly tacit, which explains why firms of a particular type cluster together in regions. However, not all firms are able to tap into this internal asset, mainly because many are managed in a way that does not allow them to reflect on their own patterns of behaviour or the trends affecting their performance. When the day-to-day emphasis is on survival or routines, a tendency to under-invest in purposeful innovation activities may occur. This behaviour not only undermines the development of the internal knowledge base, but will also lead to underdevelopment of external networks that could lead to exchange or transactions with other knowledge sources.

Learning from others is only possible if the costs of interaction with peers and other organisations are low enough or if the density of networks makes this possible. One of my favourite innovation system gurus Malerba (2005:387) states that:

“knowledge is highly idiosyncratic at the firm level, does not diffuse automatically and freely among firms, and has to be absorbed by firms through their differential abilities accumulated over time.”

This accumulation often emerges through an iterative cycle combining deduction, experimentation, application, reflection, learning and adaptation between people working on the same problems, ideas or opportunities.

The implication is that in economic development we should focus on those firms, organisations and sectors that are able to innovate, and find ways to accelerate their learning journey. These are the companies that are already absorbing new ideas from their environment and beyond, and they are actively trying them out, experimenting, following or playing with ideas. They are usually not so hard to find, as they are curious about new ideas. At the same time, we must build bridges (or reduce the costs) for the rest of the economy so that future entrants and laggards can upgrade and step up and be more innovative and efficient than the incumbents, as the incumbents may also become complacent in future if new competitors do not challenge them.

For my business clients, it means that leaders must be sensitive to what their teams are learning about, and what can be done to encourage learning in the three ways I outlined earlier. I have developed a simple workshop format that I use with my coaching clients and students to asses which factors are hampering absorption and learning, and which factors are encouraging absorption.

Image credit: Images drawn by Lina Stoeckler during our annual Mesopartner Summer Academy where I usually teach on improving absorptive capacity.


COHEN, D. & LEVINTHAL, D. 1990.  Absorptive capacity: a new perspective on learning and innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly,Vol. 35(1) Pp. 128-152.

CUNNINGHAM, S. 2012. The fundamentals of innovation system promotion for development practitioners. Leveraging a bottom up understanding for better systemic interventions in innovation systems.Pretoria: Mesopartner.

HIDALGO, C.S.A. 2015. Why Information Grows: the Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies. New York: Basic Books.

MALERBA, F. 2005. Sectoral Systems. How and why innovation differs across sectors. In The Oxford handbook of innovation.Fagerberg, J., Mowery, D.C. & Nelson, R.R. (Eds.), Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

UNCTAD. 2014. Transfer of technology and knowledge-sharing for development: Science, technology and innovation issues for developing countries. UNCTAD Current Studies on Science, Technology and Innovation. UNCTAD/DTL/STICT/2013/8: UNCTAD.

Four functions of innovation and technology management

This article is meant for my business clients and colleagues managing technology transfer and innovation extension services.

In the past I have written much about the professionals and organisations who are responsible for helping entrepreneurs to improve and strengthen their innovation portfolios on my personal blog site.

To recapitulate: I believe that many industries are struggling to modernise because their supporting institutions use completely different frameworks to manage innovation (or perhaps the supporting institutions make their choices as randomly as enterprises do).

One of the first concepts that a tech transfer institute or industry support organisation should transfer to enterprises is “how to manage innovation and technology”. Just because there is an engineer or an MBA/PhD in a company does not guarantee effective or creative management of innovation and technology.

Today I shall focus on the four broad functions that must be managed strategically in every enterprise and supporting institution. Even if someone in the organisation has the job title of Innovation Manager or Technology Manager, these functions should still be visible throughout the organisation. In other words, this is not somebody’s job, but it helps if somebody coordinates these activities. Also, see these four functions as the minimum. More mature innovating organisations will have far more depth than these four high level headings.

The four functions agreed by most scholars and innovation experts can be summarised roughly as:

  1. Searching and scanning for new ideas and technologies, both within and beyond the organisation. This includes looking at technologies that could affect the clients of the organisation, and technologies that could disrupt markets and industries.
  2. Comparingselecting and imagining how different technologies could impact the organisation, its markets and its own innovation agenda.
  3. Next comes integrating or deploying the technology or innovation into the organisation. This includes adjusting processes and systems, scaling up implementation, and project managing the whole change process.
  4. The last step is often overlooked, but new technology and innovation often make new ideas, innovations and improvements possible. I call this last step exploiting the benefits of a new technology or idea. This could involve leveraging some of the additional benefits or features of a technology, perhaps by creating a new business unit focused on an adjacent market or particular offering.

When I visit institutions, organisations and companies, I always ask “who is thinking about change taking place beyond your industry or key technology?”. I cannot tell you how often I hear that “the CEO” or “the production manager” are on top of new developments and will be attending a tech fair next year. How can this huge responsibility fall on the shoulders of one or two people, who are at the same time biased towards the current strategy which favours justifying past (sunk) investments? Or if you ask “How did you choose between two technologies?”  you will be surprised how little time was spent considering new business opportunities, or how few companies asked for on-site demonstrations or samples from their preferred technology providers.

I will refrain from being too critical of technology transfer institutions and industry-supporting organisations, except to say that these organisations should be a prime example to industry of how to scan, evaluate, compare and integrate new ideas and technologies. We don’t just want to see the shiny machines and neat facilities, we want to understand how you arrived at your decisions, and how you made the best of your investments after implementing the change. Furthermore, industry wants to know what’s next, or what’s beyond their vision and how it may affect their industry.

To bring it all together, the technological upgrading of industries is plagued by many different market failures. These failures include the tendency NOT to invest due to high research costs, due to fears about making the wrong choices, or because so many decisions and changes must be made at the same time – this while the business continues, markets fluctuate, and technologies change faster and faster. Companies (and institutions) cannot afford just to kick start innovation management immediately before making a change (or when forced by external forces to make a decision). These functions must be managed strategically on a continuous basis, both at the level of top management and within the different functions of the organisation. Both companies and their supporting institutions need to manage innovation and technology, not only from an operational perspective (striving for continuous improvement, etc.) but also from a strategic point of view.

The importance of the middle management layer for innovation

I love reading material and listening to podcasts about innovation and organisational change. One thing that strikes me is that a lot of the material focuses on the role of the leadership at the top of the organisation. This is at odds with my daily experience of working in small and medium-sized organisations.

In most of the places where I work, the challenge is often that there is a thin or non-existing layer of lieutenants that can coordinate and implement the ideas originating from higher up. Over many years of working in the manufacturing sector in South Africa I have often been struck by how “smart” top management can be, but then how wide the gap is between top management and the workers facing clients or working on the factory floor.

Recently, while reading the November-December 2017 issue of the Harvard Business Review, I found this quote from a March-April 1972 HBR article. It is from an article by Hugo Uyterhoeven.

This quote is exactly why I think we don’t always have to start with innovation right at the top, although top leadership that supports broad innovation certainly helps. Sometimes a motivated middle manager could be a great starting point for an improving innovation. Taking ideas from the top or using feedback from below or outside of the organisation, could be as good a starting point as the vision of a great senior leader.

The middle management level is also where coordinators of innovation or change can benefit from instruments developed in the field of complexity thinking or naturalistic decision making, like the instruments developed by Dave Snowden or Gary Klein or many others. Decisions at this level are often made with limited resources, incomplete information, competing objectives, tight time lines as well as shifting patterns. As the quote from Uyterhoeven suggests, these decisions often have both strategic and operational value. From an innovation perspective it means that the focus should not only be on developing good products or improving services, but also on innovation regarding how decisions are made, conversations are held, opinions of team members are elicited and considered, and how teams within organisations reach out to other silos or even organisations. Moreover, knowledge is created and recognised for its practical value by middle managers.

I believe that every middle manager can play a critical role in enabling an enabling an innovative culture.

One last thought related to this topic: while many companies have several reliable middle managers, they often don’t have succession plans in place for this level. There isn’t a pipeline of talent being refined in the organisation. Losing a great middle manager can have a great impact in small and medium-sized organisations. I have seen many small companies stumble because they don’t pay attention to the depth of their middle management

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