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.

Instigating innovation inside organisations and networks

For the last four years I have been working on this idea of catalysing or instigating innovation (take a look at my “thinking out loud blog“). It is about what leaders at different points in organisations or networks can do to improve their systems, products, environments and structures.

Central to innovation is the generation, recognition and exploration of knowledge. This knowledge can be trapped in the minds of individual staff, customers, suppliers or users, or it can be explicit. It can be latent, or it can be in your face but not used.

Another central pillar to innovation is dialogue. By this I mean not just a conversation, nor do I mean communication systems. I mean an ongoing and ever expanding process of change through dialogue – the exchange of ideas, the exploration of concepts, the identification of mental maps, attractors and emergent properties, the breaking down of aggregates and boundaries and the construction of new concepts. Dialogue spans many levels, it functions throughout the organisation and even spills over the boundaries of the organisation into other organisations, cultures, systems and networks.

By combining our research in Mesopartner on complexity and evolutionary thinking, and our experience and practice in promoting innovation within and between organisations, I came up with four frames to instigate innovation.

I describe the four frames in more detail below the diagram. In the diagram the activities are on the left hand side, and the documented strategies and how they are connected are on the right side. You have the read this diagram from the bottom up.

The Instigating Innovation Framework

The first frame is about the interaction between the strategy of the organisation, the business, the unit or the team and the innovation strategy. Many organisations have a business strategy and then a separate innovation strategy. Or they have only a business plan used mainly for financial reasons, and do not spend sufficient time tracking technological change, market change and new paradigms. Ideally the business strategy and the innovation strategy should be tightly interwoven, with the one strongly shaping the other. The more your team innovates in products, processes and business structures, the more innovative your business strategy will be.

The second frame is about how the organisation recognises, generates and leverages knowledge. This is about creating new organisational and personal habits about generating, testing, combining and stretching the use of knowledge. It enables organisations to become more thoughtful, more intentional about learning, exploring and the leveraging of knowledge to become far more innovative. In this this frame the organisation activates its resources and systems to become more knowledge intensive. The result of this frame is a knowledge, dialogue and learning strategy that feeds into the innovation strategy outlined under the first frame.

The third frame is about developing a portfolio of improvement activities that spans different time horizons, technologies, markets and functions. Many companies already have improvement activities, but because the first two frames are not in place, these projects are often isolated, project driven and to some extent even disruptive. Every opportunity to change something small, to replace something, to move something or to install something should be an opportunity to strengthen the cultural traits that are healthy, and to dampen the organisational habits that are not supporting the business strategy. From this frame we develop operational and functional or unit-level strategies that operationalise and feed back into the two earlier strategies.

The fourth frame is about networks that connects the inside of the organisation with broader knowledge, technology and societal networks. It is about developing and strengthening the knowledge networks and flows within the organisation and to external organisations. Here the organisation intentionally builds the technological capability of external knowledge partners. It is from here that the organisation can support research and development and longer-term scientific thinking. Here the organisation also purposefully engage in trans and multidisciplinary research, where the thinking and knowledge base of the organisation gets stretched. From this frame we develop a network and research strategy that feeds into the earlier strategies.

Over the years I have assisted many organisations to embark on this journey. I have seen at first hand how organisations and teams that have purposefully improved the way they talk to each other have shifted from being followers to becoming innovative leaders. I have seen the power of simple frameworks that allow deep reflection on perspectives, a continuous process of a calibration of ideas that are mixed, re-mixed and tried. I have also seen how managers at all levels and individuals grow in confidence as they feel more acknowledged, valued and fulfilled.

I hope you will take your team on this journey!

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Unlocking knowledge in organisations to unlock innovation

In 2016 I wrote an article for the University of Stellenbosch Business Schools Thought Thursdays newsletter about how leaders can unlock knowledge intheir organisations to enable innovation. This article has lead to many
interesting presentations, speeches and conversations. I also wrote several follow on articles on the that can all be accessed from this link.

In the USB article I wrote that leaders must incentivise and encourage staff to accumulate knowledge through deduction and experimentation, as well as reaching beyond their organisation. This would require that staff are encouraged to invest time in reading, exploring and trying out new ideas.  Learning by doing should be encouraged, and tacit knowledge should be actively sought out and leveraged.

For the readers of this blog I think that article is a good starting point to reflect on the culture of acknowledging and encouraging knowledge creation in your organisation. It is not so important to try and formalise all knowledge as it is to actively encourage employees to actively seek out what they know and to experiment with how this knowledge can be used, recombined and leveraged.