Elon Musk on keeping on keeping on

As a promoter of innovation and good decision making, I am always hesitant of getting too attached to what the icons like Google, Tesla, GE and others are doing. People take ideas from these organisations while forgetting about the culture, the context and the past of these organisations. Trying to copy and paste things that work in a US firm into a South African one is simply not that straightforward.

A few months ago I received this URL about an interview with Elon Musk from a friend. I filed under “to do when I have nothing important to do”. My friend raved about this video because it showed that even superheroes like Musk can cry on camera. This did not convince me to make space (!!) for this video.

So this morning, while attending to some administrative things, I watched this youtube video of an interview with Musk. I liked it very much. He talks about the difficulties of promoting an idea that is not supported by people that he admired. Yes, he gets a bit moist, but that is certainly not the main reason to watch this clip. Watching the SpaceX rocket return safely to the landing pad was just breathtaking!

So here it is. Take a look.

For me, the moral of the story is this. Don’t think that the current thought leaders will always appreciate your genius, your progress or your ideas. Challenging the Status Quo is tough. Even with lots of money it takes time, probably much longer than we all think.

I hope that you can today also decide to push harder despite not always receiving the recognition and the admiration that you believe you deserve!

How difficult it is to change an organization around a simple insight

In the last few months I have been going back to my change and organizational development roots. I have been on a journey to reconnect my more recent insights on systemic change and innovation systems with my earlier experience in process consulting, supporting organizations to change. I have rediscovered many old ideas that are still extremely valid and useful. I even have to wonder how I forgot some things that once were so important to me. Also, some things that did not seem all that important 10 years ago now seems far more important, but I digress.

Let me share an example of how a more recent insight about innovation became more powerful when I looked at it from an organizational development perspective. In my training work on innovation systems, I often lay a foundation with some simple concepts. One such building block is the idea that there are three kinds of innovation: product, process and business model. Product innovation is the easiest (you need to mainly be creative, know something about either a key technology or a key market), with process and business model innovation often being more difficult because you might need more abstract thinking capability, technical and others skills from beyond your organizations as well as a creative imagination. Easy enough, all the participants nod their heads in agreement and indicate that I can move on. Yet, back at the office this was not so simple.

I noticed that a few of my favorite technology and R & D centres here in South Africa were struggling with this very simple idea. They were mainly focused on product innovation, arguing that their behavior is shaped by the incentives created by public grants that supported them to develop products for wanna-be entrepreneurs (I wrote about the importance of technological capability here). It was convenient to blame the public grants for this incentive, and everybody knew that the results less than ideal (many of these wanna-be entrepreneurs did not stand a chance in the market as they lack technological capability and or business experience). Thus the Status Quo was maintained with everybody talking about changing but not really making the shift.  Until the easy funding became less easy. It was at this point that some management teams realized just how entrenched the culture of product innovation was, and how dependent these organizations have become on public grants.

So I had the task of coaching a team to think through this change process, to reduce their dependence on public funding by helping their team to shift to process innovation from a mainly product innovation focus. This meant that instead of designing, prototyping and manufacturing a particular product for a wanna-be entrepreneur, they shift their attention to helping existing companies or entrepreneurs with a track record improve, enhance or expand their process technologies so that they can themselves develop, prototype and manufacture new products.

Interestingly enough, the technological capabilities for product innovation and process innovation for this particular engineering group have a lot in common. It is mainly the internal processes, arrangements of teams, self assessment criteria (are we making progress?) and the identity of the organization that had to change to make this shift. This in itself meant some business model innovation was required. They also had to become better in forming partnerships with other technology providers. In complexity thinking language, the physical technologies and entrepreneurial technologies will remain largely the same, but many additional or different social technologies would be needed. For instance, some additional skillsets are needed that are more expensive and not typical to technology centre at universities. Lastly, this process focus shift would require far more work on the premises of the client, and also working with many other unknown technologies and sectoral requirements, which meant that concepts such as self-management, temporary work teams and many parallel projects also had to be tried out. It started sounding more and more like a completely new organization and a major disruption that this client could not afford. Starting over was simply not an option. And the individuals in the current team was a real asset.  If this team could not make this shift then very few would be able to make it.

It was agreed that we needed an adaptive process, a series of small experiments that allowed them to try some process innovation applications. The horizons of innovation provided a useful framework (Tim Kastelle inspired me about this model, recently Ralph-Christian took it further). We captured their current technological and market capabilities and agreed that this focus had to be maintained while we find ways to explore the adjacent technological and market spaces without breaking the bank. Tim Kastelle always say 70% of the focus should be on the current block (horizon 1). We did this by first looking which process innovations would be interesting to some of their existing markets (we found a few). The we looked at where their current technological capability could be used in new markets, but in a process innovation way. This could be done by investigating some economic sectors a little deeper.  Thus most of the energy of management remains on the current technological base and markets, with an additional focus on process innovations in an adjacent markets and technologies. We were all surprised that these ideas required very little additional funding (at first), with more specialized equipment and skills required if any of these ideas took hold.

The moral of the story is this. It sounds simple to say “shift attention from product innovation to process innovation”. People might actually agree this is important. But to make this shift requires many internal changes. A process of exploration and mental simulation using a simple framework was all it took to identify some areas where the current management team with its current resources could try several new ideas, without much change to the business plan or operations of the organization. I am very pleased with this outcome.

Thanks to the team for trusting me to facilitate this process. You know who you are!

Who should be thinking about innovation in your organization?

I am often asked whether one person or function in an organization is sufficient to coordinate and manage innovation. The answer is “no”. While I agree that it is very hard to get whole organizations to think about innovation, it certainly is a distributed capability.

Let me just recap. Back in 2015 I wrote that most innovation gurus identify four functions of innovation and technology management:

  1. Searching and scanning for new ideas and technologies, both within and beyond4 functions of innovation management - Page 1 the organization. This includes looking at technologies that could affect the clients of the organization, and technologies that could disrupt markets and industries.
  2. Comparing, selecting and imagining how different technologies could impact the organization, its markets and its own innovation agenda.
  3. Next comes integrating or deploying the technology or innovation into the organization. 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 makes 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.

Now these four functions could obviously be coordinated at a central or top management level, but at that level it would probably look at broader innovations in terms of high level product positioning, reforming key business processes, or considering different business models. Some would call this strategic innovation management. However, this function depends on many other decision makers, technicians, business unit managers and experts distributed throughout the organization to be repeating these four functions within their own context. Perhaps some individuals or units are more focused on certain technological capabilities, while others may be more focused on specific markets, territories and client types. Within each of these focus areas, individuals or teams responsible for the coordination of innovation would have to make sure they tap into the knowledge and understanding of their internal experts and staff, their external networks and even beyond. So the four functions are repeated at lower levels, each time more granular or domain specific (or context sensitive) than levels higher up.

Perhaps innovation coordinators at higher levels would be more focused on trends beyond the organization and even beyond their clients or markets, and most certainly the higher up you go the longer the planning time horizons would be. A great example of this kind of structure is explained in a forthcoming article by Jeffrey Immelt of GE in the Harvard Business Review. In GE they had both the top down functions, but then they also paid great attention to creating from the bottom up similar functions. During this process Jeffrey explains that they realized they needed to create these structures within sub regions, with more autonomy to make context specific decisions.

Within a larger organization, good ideas (a.k.a innovations) from one unit is not immediately copied elsewhere. This is the wrong approach to scaling. Instead it goes in at the first function (Scanning) of other units, where the suitability of the idea and its effect on the business unit or technological capability is assessed. This means that top management can detect good ideas in how rapidly they are taken up within the organization. Perhaps they need to play a role in making innovations that seem to be working in one area known to others. This reduces the dependence on “strategic bets” by top management. Also this means that scanning is not only about looking beyond the organization, it could also mean scanning internally in other units or over the whole organization to try and detect ideas that are being tried out, taken up or discarded.

You cannot centralize innovation at the levels of product, process and business models only at the top of an organization, even in a small company. So you have to find ways to distribute this capability throughout the organization. It is not smart if only higher levels of management are scanning the horizon, trying to wrap their minds around emerging trends like the impact of Amazon on an industry, Industry 4.0, the internet of things or additive manufacturing. Perhaps at higher levels there should be a push to get more people elsewhere in the organizations empowered and mobilized to make sure that the four functions of innovation are distributed, that more people are scanning, more people are thinking about the future, trends and change.

In the image included in this post, the arrows are flowing down, because I believe that leaders need to push the push functions down in their organization. As these functions are distributed through the organization, it would become more important to figure out how to feed the ideas, insights and innovation from the distributed organizational system to improve organization wide strategic insight. Also, the up arrows would make it possible for cross pollination, where ideas that works in one area are fed into the scanning functions of another business unit.

A final point is that learning is not only about what works (down arrows and up arrows). Learning is also about remembering what did not work, but also, what was not tried (arrows ending in space). Organizations that maintain up a repertoire of (failed or half-baked) ideas have a better stock of concepts that they can consider, recombine and re-imagine as they go forward.

A final word to technological institutions, industry associations and programs aimed at improving industry or regional innovation and competitiveness. These four functions are not only for inside a firm, they are also relevant to your organization. But these four functions typically play out a the level of the innovation system, the network or industry. Somebody somewhere better be scanning the horizon for what is coming, what is being tried and what seems to be working, and so on. If your industry is not scanning, then the long term viability of the industry you are trying to promote is under threat. This is where think tanks, academic research centers and strong industry associations (meso organizations) that can promote industrial change, collaboration and modernization become very important.

Contact me if I can help your organization improve the four functions of innovation within your organization and between your organization and others.

Instigating Innovation: Tech push fallacy is still alive

Let me continue with the Instigating Innovation series. I will slowly shift my attention to the technology intermediaries, research centres and technology transfer organisations that exist in many countries to overcome persistent market failures in the private sector. Yes, I know it is a shock for some, but these centres do not really exist to promote the technical careers or the of these people in these centres, nor to promote a specific technology in itself. From a systemic perspective, these kinds of technological institutions exist because they are supposed to overcome pervasive causes of under investment in technology (and skills development) and patterns of poor performance of enterprises. Economists describe the last two phenomena as the result of market failures, mainly caused by information asymmetries, a lack of public goods, high coordination costs, economies of scale and a myriad of other challenges faced by enterprises (hierarchies), markets and networks.

The challenge is that very often the technology these intermediaries promote become an objective in itself. The technology, embodied in equipment, processes and codified knowledge, becomes the main focus. So now we see technology centres being created to promote Industry 4.0, or 3D printing, or environmentally friendly technology. While I am the first to admit that I am helping many of my clients come to grips with industry 4.0, additive manufacturing or environmentally friendly technology, we must not confuse means with ends.

About 20 years ago, my late business partner Jorg Meyer-Stamer and his colleagues at the German Development Institute developed the Systemic Competitiveness framework. Many of my posts on technological capability and innovation systems are based on this Systemic Competitiveness, but I wont go into this right now (perhaps I can do that in a later post), but will only state this this model has greatly influenced my thinking of how technological capability can be developed in order to upgrade, improve or stimulate the competitiveness and innovative behavior of enterprises and state institutions. In one of my current research contracts I had to retrace the evolutionary economics origins of this framework and I found the following paragraph in one of the early publications:

“A further fallacy also played a role in the past: the establishment of technology institutions was based on the technology-push model, according to which breakthroughs in basic research provide impulses to
applied research, which these in turn pass on to product development. In fact, however, research and development is for the most part an interactive process; and it is frequently not scientific breakthroughs
that impel technological progress, but, on the contrary, technological breakthroughs that induce scientific research, which then seeks to interpret the essence and foundations of a technology already in use.”

What struck me was the past tense in the first sentence. So many of the technology institutions I am working with are still established on these same grounds. A technology push model. Actually, much of economic development has the same mindset, a solution-push model. It implies that clever solutions are developed in a clinical and carefully managed environment, and then is made relevant to business people (as Jorg often said “stupid business people”) through iterations of “simplification” and “adaptation”. Don’t get me wrong. I am the first to promote scientific discovery. But this has its place. Modernisation of industry must start from the demand side:

  • where is the system now?
  • What is preventing companies from competing regionally and internationally?
  • What kind of failures, both in business models but also in markets are repeating over and over again?
  • What kind of positive externality can we create?
  • How can we reduce the costs for many enterprises to innovate and become more competitive?

Only then do you start asking what kind of technological solutions, combinations, coordination effort or demonstration is needed. Perhaps no new equipment or applied research is needed, maybe something else must first happen. Some non technical things that I have seen work are:

  • mobilising a group of enterprises into a discovery process of common constraints and issues
  • arranging exchange between researchers, academics and business people at management and operational levels
  • hosting interesting events that provides technical or strategic inspiration to the private sector
  • helping companies overcome coordination costs
  • making existing technology that is not widely used available to industry so that they can try it
  • placing interns at enterprises that have different skills than the enterprise use at the moment
  • arranging visits to successful enterprises; and many more.

The truth of the matter is that the innovative culture of the technology institution, and its openness to learn from the industries it is working with are much better predictors of whether the industries around them will be innovative. If the technology institutions are bureaucratic, stale or rigid, nobody in industry will be inspired by them to try new ideas, new technologies, explore applying technology into new markets, etc. Just like we can sense when we arrive (or contact) a succesful enterprise, so we can all sense when we have arrived at an innovative technology institution. It looks different, there is a vibe. It is information rich, everywhere you look you can see ideas being played with, things being tried, carcasses of past experiments can be seen in the corner.

I can already hear some of my customers leading technology centres reminding me that I must consider their “funding mandate from government” and their “institutional context in universities” as creating limitations in how creative they can be, and just how much demand orientation they can risk taking. Yes. I know this. In the end, leaders must also create some space between the expectations of their funders (masters?), their teams and their target industries. In fact, how leaders balance these demands and what is needed by their clients, students and staff can probably be described as business model innovation. If you cannot get funding from government for what you believe is required, just how creative are you to raise this funding through other (legal) means?

We have seen over and over again that it is not the shiny new piece of equipment in the technology centre that inspires industry; but the culture of the technology centre, the vibe, the willingness to try crazy ideas to make even old stuff work better or combining old and new. Ok, I agree, the shiny equipment excites geeks like me, but this is not all that matters.

My main point is this. Technology Institutions should focus on understanding the patterns of performance or under-performance in the industries and technology domains they are working in, and should then devise innovative products, services and business models to respond to these. This means working back from the constraint to what is possible, often through technology. To be effective in helping entrepreneurs overcome the issues they are facing would require that these technology institutions are innovative to the core. Not just using innovative technology, or offering some innovative services, but also in how these institutions are managed, how they discover what is needed and in how the collaborate with other institutions and the private sector.

To instigate innovation in the private sector, publicly funded technology institutions need to be innovative themselves.

 

Source:

ESSER, K., HILLEBRAND, W., MESSNER, D. & MEYER-STAMER, J. 1995.  Systemic competitiveness. New patterns for industrial development. London: Frank Cas. Page 69

 

 

Instigating Innovation: Accelerating Experimentation in industry

When innovation centers, technology transfer centers, applied research platforms and other similar organisations want to help industry with innovation, one way could be to assist companies to experiment with new ideas. I will simply refer to these centers from here onward as innovation and technology support centers. In most of the places where I work these centers are often hosted by or associated with universities, applied research organisations or with technology transfer organisations.

One way to support industry to experiment is through various technology demonstration-like activities, allowing enterprises access to scarce and sophisticated equipment where they can try new ideas. In its simplest form, facilities allow companies to order samples to a certain specification, allowing a company to see whether a particular process can meet a specification or performance criteria. A slightly more intensive form of tech demonstration allows in visitors and a technology and its application is demonstrated (eyes only, no touching!). Very often equipment suppliers play this role, but in many developing countries equipment suppliers behave more like agents and can not really demonstrate equipment.

In Germany I saw demonstration facilities where the pro’s showed the enterprises how things works, and then they stood back allowing teams from a company to try things themselves.

A critical role of innovation support centers is to provide industry with comparative studies of different process equipment. For instance, in an innovation center supporting metal based manufacturers, providing industry with a comparison of the costs and uses of different kinds of CAD systems could be extremely valuable to industry.

Maker labs, Fablabs and similar centers all make it easier for teams that want to create or tinker with an idea to gain access to diverse technologies, reducing the costs of experimenting. However, the range of equipment in these labs are often not so advanced, but it can often be very diversified. In my experience these centers are very helpful to refine early idea formation and prototyping. However, to help manufacturers experiment with different process technologies, different kinds of materials, substitute technologies, etc. is the a binding constraint in many developing countries. The costs of gaining new knowledge is high, and due to high costs of failure, companies do not experiment.

Innovation support centers must be very intentional about reducing the costs of various kinds of experiments if they want manufacturers, emergent enterprises and inventors to try new ideas. These innovation centers can play a role by:

a) assisting companies to internally organize themselves better for experimentation internally

b) assisting many companies to organize themselves better for experimentation collaboratively

c) conducting transparent experiments on behalf of industry collectives

In my experience, graduates from science disciplines often understand how to conduct experiments because their coursework often involve time in a lab. They know basics like isolating variables, managing samples, measuring results, etc. However, engineering graduates often do not have this experience (at least in the countries where I am working most). For many engineering graduates, the closest they will ever get to an experiment is a CAD design, or perhaps a 3D printed prototype.

Therefore, it is necessary for a range of these innovation and technology support centres to assist companies at various hierarchical levels to experiment.

At the functional or operational level, organising for experimentation involves:

  • creating teams from different operational backgrounds,
  • creating multiple teams working on the same problem,
  • getting different teams to pursue different approaches
  • failing in parallel and then comparing results regularly
  • failing faster by using iterations, physical prototypes and mock ups
  • According to Thomke, results should be anticipated and exploited – even before the results are confirmed

At a higher management level, organising for experimentation involves:

  • Changing measurement systems to not only reward success, but to encourage trying new things (thus encouraging learning and not discouraging failure).
  • moving from expert opinion to allow naivety and creativity
  • Preparing for ideas and results that may point to management failures or inefficiencies elsewhere in the firm (e.g. improving a process may be hampered by a company policy from the finance department)

Getting multiple companies and supporting organisations to experiment together is of course a little bit harder. Management of different organisations have many reasons to hide failures, thus undermining collective learning. One way around this could be to use a panel or collective of companies to identify a range of experiments, and then these experiments are conducted at the supporting institution in a transparent way. All the results (success, failures and variable results) are carefully documented and shared with the companies. However, to get the manufacturers to use these new ideas may require some incentives. In my experience, this works much better in a competitive environment, where companies are under pressure to use new ideas to gain an advantage. In industries with poor dynamism and low competition, new ideas are often not leveraged because it simply takes too much effort to be different.

Promising ideas from experiments can be combined and integrated after several iterations to create working prototypes. Here the challenge is to help industries to think small. First get the prototype process to work at a small scale and at lower cost before going to large scale of testing several variables simultanously. An important heuristic is to prototype at as small as possible scale while keeping the key mechanical or scientific properties consistent. More about this in a later post. (Or perhaps some of the people I have helped recently would not mind sharing their experience in the comments?)

I know this is already a long post, but I will add that Dave Snowden promotes Safe2fail probes, where teams are forced to design a range of experiments going in a range of directions even if failure is certain in some instances. In my experience this really works well. It breaks the linear thinking that often dominates the technical and manufacturing industries by acknowledging that while there may be preferred solutions, alternatives and especially naive experiments should be included in the overall portfolio. To make this work it is really important that the teams report back regularly on their learning and results, and that all the teams together decide which solutions worked best within the context.

THOMKE, S.H. 2003.  Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Innovation. Harvard Business Press.

 

How I teach the topic of innovation systems

IMG_2533One of my favorite subjects to teach is about the promotion of innovation systems. I love it because it combines abstract elements that most people grasp, and practical elements that most people enjoy. Most academic literature on innovation systems are quite abstract, and our approach to identifying ways to improve an innovation system from its current state is quite pragmatic. The literature on managing innovation is very broad and contains millions of tips, theories, myths – actually it is overwhelming for practitioners wanting to support industries, firms and organizations to become more innovative. Therefore I try to explain the principles of both innovation systems and innovation management so that people can re-organize and use what they already know, and know where to relate new knowledge that they may encounter along the way.

SC_in_action
Trying to explain how to get exploration and safe 2 fail experiments to work

I typically start by laying some foundations, often using puppets, props or cartoons to make it slightly less serious (I use sheep characters, don’t ask why):

While most people intuitively understand that there are different kinds of innovation, most practitioners are surprised by how different product innovation, process innovation and business model innovation are. A great discussion usually takes place when people reflect on why business model innovation (Tim Kastelle states that it is easy but really hard) is really what hampers growth and productivity improvements, but how most industrial and innovation policies typically targets mostly product and process improvements.

Now that the foundation is in place, I typically move on to the more abstract issue of innovation systems. After explaining the definition (see the bottom of the post) that I like most, it is necessary to explain the importance of the dynamic between the different elements. It is natural to create checklists of institutions and actors and tend to forget that even in economic development weaker actors that interact more dynamically can trump first class institutions that are not accessible to most people that need support.

The importance of building the technological capability beyond the leading firms is important. I have written many posts about this so will not repeat this here, but for me the systemic nature of innovation and knowledge accumulation is critical. But typically we use 6 lines of inquiry to investigate how the dynamism in the system can be improved. There are four really important aspects which include:6 Four lines of inquiry_web

 

The agenda concludes with different ways practitioners and policy makers can intervene in the innovation system to improve the dynamics, the flow of information, the exchange of knowledge and the increased innovation appetite of entrepreneurs.

Duration

To present this agenda can take anything from 2.5 hours to three days. When the participants are experienced in diagnosing enterprises and public institutions, the exercises tend to be more meaningful and fun. When nobody in the room knows anything about the problems companies face on a day to day basis this kind of training is much harder. When I have more time then topics such as mapping formal knowledge flows, detecting unmet sophisticated demand, collaborating for research and development, etc can be included.

I have been presenting this session is various formats at international training events like our Annual Summer Academy in Germany, at different academic departments in universities. I frequently present this in some form to science, technology and industry government officials. In other occasions I have presented this to practitioners, development staff and even to the management of a university wanting to become more innovative itself.

The definition I work from:

The definition of innovation systems that I work from is the one of the earliest definitions on this subject. Freeman (1987:1) defined an innovation system as “the network of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and interactions initiate, import and diffuse new technologies.The emphasis is mainly on the dynamics, process and transformation of knowledge and learning into desired outputs within an adaptive and complex economic system.

The textbooks I teach from:

My favourite textbook that I use when teaching at universities remains FAGERBERG, J., MOWERY, D.C. & NELSON, R.R. 2005.  The Oxford handbook of innovation. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

If I have more of a business management audience, then I prefer to use a book with more innovation and technology management tools in it such as DODGSON, M., GANN, D. & SALTER, A. 2008.  The Management of Technological Innovation. Oxford University Press.

Of course, this agenda follows the logic of my own book on the promotion of innovation systems that I have published!

 

 

Instigating innovation in traditional industries

The average manufacturer in a developing country grapples with the notion of innovation. That is why they are often called “traditional”, although almost each industry would have one or two outliers. While governments, like South Africa, offers incentives to stimulate innovation, most manufacturers do not identify with the term the way the governments use it. For instance, when governments use the word “innovation” they often mean “invention“, in other words something that can be protected, copyrighted and owned (more about the differences between innovation and invention here). While I understand the argument for patenting and protection I think this narrow definition of innovation is inhibiting many industries from increasing their productivity and competitiveness by copying what works from elsewhere (catching up). It also fails to recognize that in many value chains the manufacturers themselves make components or sub-systems that goes into overarching architectures (defined by standards, compliance, specifications), so their design authority is limited in scope.

Innovation_invention

Herewith a list of synonyms from thesaurus.com for innovation that I have assessed to see how enterprises might understand or respond to these words:

  • Modernization – lots of enterprises dream about this but often do not have the many nor the organizational capability to pull it off (one day, next time)
  • contraption – many innovations and most inventions result in one of these. You can see them standing in the corners in most factories
  • Mutation, addition, alteration, modification – this is what most innovations in traditional industry would look like. They are doing this all the time as their machines gets older, but this behavior is mostly not recognized nor accelerated
  • newness, departure, deviation – the bolder enterprises with more financial and organizational capability might try these, but it takes capital to maintain.

Most people understand innovation as an outcome, but the word itself is a noun that implies change and novelty. It is about a shift, even if it is often incremental. The reason why so many of our enterprises here in South Africa are not deemed to be innovative is because they struggle (or perhaps do not have the organizational capability) to manage several simultaneous change processes. As Tim Kastelle posted some years ago, change is simple but not easy. Although this is often described as a technology problem it is really a management problem (see some older posts here). I would go even further and state that in many industries the margins are so thin that even those enterprises that have a reasonable management structure would struggle to finance many innovations at the same time.

However, in my experience of visiting more than 50 manufacturers every year I am always stunned and awed by how ingenious these companies are. They keep old machines running, often modifying them on the fly. They operate with fluctuating and unreliable electricity, inconsistent water pressure and often hardly any specialist support. What policy makers often do not recognize is that in developing countries it takes a lot of management time and capacity just to keep the throughput going. The time and effort to go explore “change” beyond what is necessary in the short to medium term is very expensive. The costs of evaluation new ideas, new technologies, new markets and better suppliers are all far more expensive in developing countries than elsewhere. Yet, at the heart of innovation is the ability to combine different inputs, different knowledge pools, different supporting capabilities with different market possibilities.

There are two implications for innovation promotion practitioners.

  1. The process of instigating innovation must start with recognizing how companies are innovating NOW. How are they modifying their processes (and products), and how much does it cost? What are the risks that are keeping them from introducing more novelty? Perhaps use the Horizons of Innovation (my next post) to create a portfolio of innovation (change) activities that can be identified at the enterprise or industry levels.
  2. It is hard if not impossible for different manufacturers in most countries to figure out what others are struggling to change at a technological level. Use your ability to move between enterprises to identify opportunities to turn individual company costs into public costs (this is often cheaper). Do not take the innovation away from enterprises, but use your meso level technology institutions to try and accelerate the learning or to reduce the costs of trying various alternatives. Be very open with the results to enable learning and dissemination of ideas.

The process of instigating innovation must start with recognizing where manufacturers are naturally trying to change, just like a change process in an organization must start with understanding current behaviour, culture and context. Somehow innovation have become so associated with a contraptions and narrow views on technology that the organizational development body of knowledge and management of change have been left behind.

Stock take of the Instigating Innovation series

Last year I started writing a series about Instigating Innovation. To make it easier for regular and irregular readers the previous posts are summarized here.

The first post in the series was published in June 2015. I chose “instigating” because it has a more positive ring to it than provocation or incitement. While it is a noun with mainly a positive tone, it is a bit more aggressive than support, enable or encourage or even stimulating. I have been referred to in my past as an instigator of change so I thought this was a good idea.

Bear in mind that the content of this series is aimed at meso-level industry supporting institutions and programmes as well as enterprises themselves.

A second post explored where people wanting to instigate innovation can possibly start. My personal takeout from that post is the last paragraph:

“A quote that is attributed to William Gibson goes “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. Step one is to get more people involved in searching for what is already here, it is just not recognized inside the firm or industry.”

Then I wrote two posts (innovation culture and cultural change) about innovation culture in enterprises. When I teach about innovation I am always struck by how executives think that by creating a function in an enterprise strategic problems will be solved. This is especially true for innovation, but it also applies to other management areas such as strategy, operations and marketing.

The last post of 2015 in the series looked at the four universal functions that management must attend to in order to institutionalize innovation.

I have planned a further five posts in this series, but have already started writing this up as a working paper. Thank you for the constructive feedback from Ulrich, Frank, Goran, Larry, Liza and the “likes” from many of my regular readers!

Please let me know which ideas you have already implemented or tried in your organization!

Innovation as cultural as opposed to innovation as a technique or function

Reflecting on the correspondence I have received after my previous post and recent training sessions with manufacturers, I realize that people are looking for tools and tricks to “fix” innovation. Sometimes it is actually not even about innovation, but about making up for past decisions like not investing in technology or market development when they should have. Others think of innovation as a function, or as a management tool that can be standardized into a job description or an area of responsibility. While this is possible in some contexts, I don’t find this approach to innovation so useful in the smaller and medium sized manufacturing firms and the research/technology institution space where I am working in.

For me, innovation is firstly a value, perspective on how organizations should be. When management says “we are an innovative organization” or “we want an innovative culture” or “our reputation is that we are innovative” then we can move to tools, portfolios, tricks, and tweaks (those things that people in innovation functions must attend to). Many textbooks, articles and blog sites on innovation and technology management are then useful. Actually the challenge is to decide which of the bucketloads of advice to use, and consultants like me typically help organizations to choose a few tools and to then use them consistently and fully. I would dare to say that it is relatively easy to help companies that are already innovative to become more innovative.

The area that I am really intrigued by, are those organizations that are not innovative, or that would not describe themselves as having an innovative culture. Maybe they used to be innovative. Maybe they are innovative in some areas, but not in others. Maybe they had one or two tricks in the past that have now become old. These could be extremely competent organizations, like a research programme, a manufacturer of highly specialized industrial equipment, or an organization that simply design and manufacturers what their customers expressively tell them to make. Even if the outputs of these organizations can be described as “innovative”, these organizations themselves do not necessarily have innovative cultures that constantly are creating novel ideas, processes and markets. In my experience these organizations have technically brilliant people, but management is often not able to harness the genius, experience or creativity of their people. The main reason for this is not a lack of technique, tools or tricks. It is because of a lack of an innovative culture, leading to a lack of innovative purpose. These organizations are trapped. They are equipped for the past, but they are paralyzed by all the choices they have to make about the future. For management, it feels like everything that they have in place are inadequate and need equal attention, ranging from attracting staff with better (or different) qualifications to finding new markets, developing new technological capability, sorting out cash flow and capital expenditure, addressing succession planning, etc.

Improving the innovation culture of an organization is a complex issue. It is not about tasks, functions or tools, but about changing relations between people, within and beyond the boundaries of the organization.

When working with organizations that must improve their innovative culture, motivational speeches, optimistic visions of the future, etc, are not useful and could in fact deepen the crises facing management. Instruments such as scenario planning, roadmaps, foresight techniques, or interventions like starting a R&D unit, a lean exercise to reduce waste, are all addressing the wrong issues and distract management from confronting the real issue that are stifling the organization. It narrows the ability of management and specialists to scan within and beyond the organisation for opportunities that could be used to change the way people work together, think together, solve problems together. The typical employee in a manufacturing or technical environment loves solving problems, love tinkering with novelty. But often management becomes so performance or target obsessed (lean?) that they don’t tap into the latent potential of their people.

Improving the innovation culture process starts with connecting management back with their people. It starts in the present, the now, not the future scenarios, not with using innovation techniques, better analytical tools, and in most cases not with some or other management fad. It goes beyond trying to improve products, processes or business areas, beyond gaps in the management capability. It must look at the relations between people, between what people know and can do now (or in the recent past), and the potential the people see to make small improvements.

When management has the courage to decide to improve their innovative culture it starts a process that cannot be described as incremental improvement, as that sounds too directed. It is rather like a deepening, or an awakening where employees are inspired to contribute, and management is more aware what they can do to enable their employees to become more innovative on all fronts. Of course, management also face the risk that outdated management approaches that does not seek to empower employees to be creative will be exposed, and some tough decisions will have to be made.

For me the most promising approach to improving innovation in an organization is a organization development approach (not limited to design, not based on technical innovation instruments) based on complexity thinking, like our Systemic Insight approach. We are using instruments such as Sensemaker developed by Cognitive Edge to find areas for improvement, areas where relations between knowledge objects (knowledge, artificats, heuristics, etc) and people can be improved, starting from where the system is and then probing to understand what the immediate potential is for improvement. It allows people to take many small steps in parallel to improve the system and to push back the boundaries that have constrained the creativity in the organization.

In my view, building an innovation culture goes far beyond establishing or refining innovation management functions. It is a strategic issue that is initiated by top management, but that will soon spill over into every area of the organization, hence it cannot be driven from a management function like “innovation”.

Instigating innovation: Where to start

I am currently focused on strengthening the manufacturing sector. Increasingly I am speaking at meetings, events, in boardrooms and in front of post graduate students about innovation. In this more engineering-minded world people are asking me the whole time for a few tips to get innovation going.

  • “How about an idea box?”
  • “How about canvassing ideas for a new product design from our customers?”
  • “How about rewarding our engineers with a profit share if they design a new product?”

The truth is, many manufacturing enterprises, especially the smaller ones, are too sliced into specific functions. Design designs, manufacturing manufacturers, salesmen become creative about delivery dates, and accounts, well, they count costs. This hierarchy makes information flows about potential improvements, new market opportunities and some old tricks that could become useful again very difficult. The cost of coordination in these enterprises are very high. In these silo-based organizations the costs of finding information, new signals and new ideas from outside the organizations is extremely high, and in general, these organizations struggle to learn.

A second problem is that most smaller manufacturers are mainly focused on product innovation. Which does not mean being focused on knocking the socks of their customers with frequent improvements or brilliant designs. Unfortunately many of the more traditional manufacturers are focused on how to get the price down or how to sort our quality issues. Which is actually a kind of process improvement, except that it is a very narrow kind of process improvement. The challenge with this incremental approach is that you can at most only grow and develop as fast as your customers can articulate what they want. Competitors or substitutes can also upset market relations by coming up with novel solutions that an incremental approach struggles to generate.

A third problem is that innovation is only done when customers demand it. It is passive. It lives in bursts to get things right, and then it settles into a problem solving mode until a next customer makes some unreasonable demands.

What many manufacturers lack, especially those in the more traditional sectors like metals and engineering, is a focused effort by top management to build an innovative culture that is actively trying to find product, process and business model improvements. It must be focused internally, in order to constantly rethink the business and its core processes, and it must be focused externally, to what customers and competitors are doing. The really good companies are also looking beyond current markets and competitors to new technologies and how they might shape the future.

This far I have addressed a business perspective. But research organizations, technology transfer centres and industry support centres can also get trapped in a low innovation culture.

I am now working with a few industry groups and research and technology centres to find out how these organizations can move beyond “catching up” and responding to change towards anticipating what is next. It sounds really simple, but by simply mobilizing more and more people in the organization to start searching for what’s next has already yielded amazing results in a short time. Maybe I am over optimistic, but already I can sense the innovation cultures change in these organizations as more and more people become involved in searching for possibility.

A quote that is attributed to William Gibson goes “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. Step one is get more people involved in searching for what is already here, it is just not recognized inside the firm or industry.