Innovation as culture rather than as a technique or function

No tool or technique will improve the innovation culture of your company – it is a relationship thing and leadership is central to success.

I share some thoughts in this weeks Thought Thursdays newsletter of the USB Executive Development.


Click here for the article on the USB-ED website,

Innovation strategy metaphors: building bridges or strengthening bases

I have been inspired by some of the metaphors developed by Sonja Blignaut in her blog. She uses these metaphors to help leaders understand polarities, balance and strategic fit.

I therefore thought that I should write up two metaphors that I often use when helping leaders to decide where to focus their strategic innovation attempts. When leaders have to decide on what to focus their attention, they can either strengthen their base, which is focusing on where they can improve what already exists, or they can build bridges, which is focusing on the future, exploring beyond the horizon.

Let me explain these two metaphors.

Strengthening bases. From an innovation perspective, strengthening the base is all about using current resources, infrastructure and people in a more optimal way. This process need not only be inwardly focused, but could also apply to improving interaction with suppliers and relationships with clients, or improving access to existing markets. In the base-strengthening mode there is a strong focus on getting the basics right, on becoming more efficient, and on measuring progress and performance. In a base-strengthening strategy there will be a lot of efforts aimed at improving current products and services as well as  processes and internal systems.

Building bridges. From an innovation perspective, building bridges is about reaching out into adjacent or new territories. These territories could be either technological innovations or markets or even new business models. While the direction may be clear, the exact approach may not be immediately clear. A few pioneers, typically with a broader skill set, are sent to scout for possible beachheads or footholds and then help the organisation to establish anchor points across uncertain territory. The mindset of management is flexible, targets are negotiable, and performance is measured more in terms of potential than actual performance. In a bridge-building strategy there will be a lot of attempts to try new ideas, to experiment with new marketing methods, technology and even partnerships, both in terms of product/service and process/system innovation and business model arrangements and management systems.

After explaining these two different mind sets I like to ask leadership teams according to which metaphor they are operating You won’t believe how often teams cannot agree on whether they are building bridges or strengthening bases. This usually leads to an interesting discussion. Ultimately it is not about choosing one or the other, but the organisation must be clear about which area it is focusing on: base strengthening or bridge building.

I don’t want to overdo the metaphors, but I’d like to make one last point. These two metaphors require different mindsets and skills. Base strengthening is more operational, can be more accurately managed and measured, and deals with a lot of knowns. It is complicated, but it can be planned, results can be compared, and adaptations can be made to try and improve results. Bridge building on the other hand is riskier – it is less operational and more exploratory. There are lots of new challenges, new learning and unexpected requirements that could delay progress. It would be unwise to focus on bridge building when there are dangerous cracks in the foundations.

When leadership teams discuss their current strategy they quickly realise that while they are striving to build bridges they are in fact mainly busy strengthening the bases. Employees feel frustrated when their leaders are mainly talking about bridges to new opportunities when it is clear that there are many basics that are not receiving attention that are required for a strong base require. Think of the broken window theory and how quickly we become conditioned or used to things that are out of shape or incomplete -we just aren’t aware of what’s happening. Furthermore, strengthening the base could also consume so much of their resources that organisations can lose touch with the real world beyond the organisation. Leaders have to find ways of balancing attempts to reach into the unknown with attending to the basics that makes a base a stable, reliable platform from where the organisation can build its portfolio of strategies.

How to recognise 3 kinds of innovation in your organisation

When I am asked to help a team with their innovation strategy, I always ask about their past innovation activities. Often I am told that they are not yet innovating, or that they innovate infrequently, or that they are planning to innovate more in the future. However, if you ask the team to think about recent attempts to change, improve and restructure their activities, they quickly come up with a long list of innovations that they never recognised as such. These improvements might have achieved a specific purpose, but perhaps they could have been leveraged to have a more profound effect on the organisational culture. Almost every opportunity to adapt something in an organisation is also an opportunity to strenghten the learning culture, build trust, deepen the use of knowledge, encourage experimentation and to be more innovative.

To help teams recognise how they might have innovated in the past, I explain three different kinds of innovation. It is by looking back that we can also look forward.

The most easily identifiable form of innovation is innovation aimed at developing new or improved products and services. In technical products this product development process may require deep knowledge of how to harness natural phenomena or use certain technology, while in other sectors like the food sector developing a new product may require a good understanding of consumer tastes and different ingredients. Not all new products require a complicated design and development process.

Process innovation is slightly more difficult and involves making improvements to existing products and services or designing completely new products and services, often in an incremental or ongoing way. Process innovation could be aimed at improving efficiency and reducing waste or costs, or it could be the introduction of new equipment and technologies into an existing process. While many smaller companies lack this process improvement ability in-house, even high-tech manufacturers depend on specialists external to the organisation. In places where these experts or specialists are not available, process improvement costs are much higher and improvements are more difficult to implement. In many industries, product innovation is made possible by new process innovations, so manufacturers who integrate new equipment into their production facilities may be able to offer new products and services simply by upgrading their systems. An interesting phenomenon is that enterprises that are good at continuous process improvement are often able to introduce many more product innovations, as they typically have internal systems for product development, product distribution and knowledge accumulation.

The third kind of innovation is focused on business model innovation and organisational design. This kind of innovation is all about internal organisation, functional specification, combining different kinds of internal expertise, knowledge and technology domains and being able to adapt the management of a company division based on differences in specific contexts. We include innovation in marketing strategies, innovation in supply chain integration, and innovate approaches to co-opting or working with customers as well as improved management models under this heading. Enterprises that are able to manage innovatively tend to be better at process innovation, resulting in more options and the ability to improve products or services.

Many improvements that my clients want to undertake span all three of these types of innovation. Yet, the way how you go about innovating are slightly more difficult and may require different team and expertise configurations.

A resource for leaders trying to unlock knowledge

This is one of my favourite topics to write, read and talk about. How knowledge can be leveraged to enable innovation in organisations. Even if it is tacit, or people don’t even know they posses valuable knowledge, leaders can create an environment where these ideas can be surfaced, explored and leveraged.

The pdf here contains three revised blog posts that I wrote on my ‘thinking out loud‘ blog site over the last two years. I’ve had the text edited and have made some improvements. Take a look and let me know if you find this useful.