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.

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