How to Organize for Innovation

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How to do, manage, and think about creating impactful innovations? The secret to innovation success is in three organizing mindsets.

Innovation is a word often used, poorly understood, and oversimplified. When looking at what is involved in innovation it shouldn’t surprise us that there is a quest to create simple solutions to reduce the complexity associated with it all and make change easier. Yet, simple solutions to complex problems are most often wrong.

There are, however, ways we can reduce the amount of complexity to better think and organize what it is involved in innovation. By changing the way we think about innovation and how we perceive it we will better position ourselves to do it.

Innovation: A complicated task

When looking at what makes or breaks a successful and sustainable innovation (something that creates or shapes a new product or service into the world to meet a need) there is much discussion of what specific skills, tools, and mindsets that are needed. Complicating matters is that innovation is highly dependent on the thing you wish to innovation (e.g., product, service, policy), the thing you wish to disrupt (e.g., market, the established order, status quo), and the resources you have at your disposal (e.g., knowledge, tools, talent, time).

This is further complicated because certain environments are highly regulated (e.g., health systems, food services, air travel) while others are dependent on a variety of factors outside of the control of any single individual, group, or body (e.g., systems biology, conservation science) which affect what innovations are possible on a particular timescale.

While we have limited ability to influence many of these factors, the way we perceive, think about, and organize our innovation efforts can make a big difference. This is what can make the best use of the strategies, tools, and techniques that are so widely discussed and can potentially explain why they so often fail to produce results, even when organized together into specialized labs.

A simple — but not simplistic — way to think and organize our innovation work comes in threes. It begins by connecting these three domains of thought within an innovation ecosystem.

Organizing Innovation

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An innovation ecosystem is a recognition of the constellation of actors that influence innovation development, deployment, and support. Working within or establishing an innovation ecosystem involves aligning resources and connecting them together within, across, and beyond the organization.

Easier said than done? Not if you approach innovation by organizing our thinking about the mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets required to innovation within your specific situation within three domains. These domains are part of a whole and focus on specific levels of detail, breadth, and relationships.

This tripartite approach to organizing innovation ensures that the right technical, managerial, and strategic resources are brought to bear on the work of bringing an idea into the world.

Micro: Technical

The first domain of organizing is what may be most commonly thought of as the starting point when thinking about innovation. It’s the bringing together of the right technical skills to the parts of the product or service that touch your envisioned end-user. This sometimes is tied to the myth of the lone genius, brilliant scientist, or wily inventor whose skill and talent will create the next great product.

It’s the domain of expertise — having the technical skill and subject matter knowledge about the thing you wish to develop and innovated.

Even with complex problems, where expertise isn’t as useful, the need for expertise is evident to innovate. If you’re developing an app, you need digital experience designers and programmers. If you’re creating a new mental health response service, psychologists and social workers with the right expertise are key to have involved. If you’re looking to disrupt a financial services model, having those in the finance sector on your team makes a big difference.

Technical expertise brings with it a focus on the details. These are sometimes small, but they are significant and important. It can be the little things that can make a big difference in the hands of a skilled practitioner. The activities at this level are best performed by those who have a specific disciplinary or subject-matter focus and skills that are germane to the problem domain being addressed.

This micro-level domain is where we seek specific talents, resources, and knowledge within the ecosystem and seek to leverage and mobilize that to produce an innovation.

Design thinking serves to mobilize this domain by connecting the technical expertise of the group with creative problem framing and solving of others in the organization who might be looking at the problem differently, yet may not have domain-specific design skills.

Meso: Managerial

This middle domain is most easily dismissed by innovators (in my opinion), yet it is what brings together the strategic vision (the macro layer) with the micro (technical) layer of innovation together. This is where innovation and design management come together. It is in this middle domain that much of the decision-making and sensemaking takes place by connecting the work at the front-line with the overall strategic vision of the innovation and fit within the ecosystem.

This is where developmental evaluation and design play the most significant role. It’s at this management and operational level where the interface between the resources, vision, goals, and activities are connected.

This domain requires some understanding of the technical aspects of the work, but can be performed by those who have management skills, can organize projects, and be flexible in the way they approach the work. This is the layer where an innovator’s mindset (the flexible, adaptive, developmental) approach to the work is critical.

Management, in this case, is about role and function, not organizational position. This is not about creating hierarchical structures, managerial titles and positions, or large bureaucracies. Management is about the task of paying attention to the alignment, flow, and activities associated with the technical aspects of the work and the strategic, systems perspective of the environment.

This isn’t the sexy part of innovation, but it is what brings results.

Macro: Strategy & Systems Thinking

The third domain of innovation organizing is the one that gets tied to the ‘big thinkers’, the visionaries, the ‘bold leaders’ and others most likely to give a TED talk on innovation. It’s about big-picture thinking, but also much more.

While having a vision is important, it doesn’t guarantee success. As examples like the ‘discovery’ of penicillin and how it took others to see the potential to make it work for the public’s health show, innovation requires those who can see what’s possible and execute. It’s not just a vision, but the systems thinking and ability to connect ideas to trends to leadership that makes this domain important.

Strategy is about connecting resources to a mission and has many myths associated with it. What organizing innovation looks like in the macro domain is aligning the longer-term vision for what the innovation is intended to do (even if that changes over time) with the manner of running the organization. This is about paying attention to the ecosystem (within and beyond the organization), the relationships between internal resources, external networks, and the social, political, technological, economic, and environmental landscape.

The activities associated with organizing innovation in this domain are often associated with strategic foresight and systems thinking. An organization needs to be able to see where they are within systems, understand their own innovation ecosystem, and be able to assess what is happening within both to forecast and strategically plan for what is to come.

This is about remembering that an innovation might be developed today, but it’s impact is for tomorrow. A strategy is what connects the activities of today with what’s happening to lead us to tomorrow.

Bringing it together

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Successful innovation is about working within an ecosystem and requires the type of thinking that supports the work in that system.

Without technical expertise, your innovation is unlikely to have the product or service quality — the details — that make it attractive to a new audience, particularly in a crowded marketplace (Micro).

Without a vision and strategic sense of where the innovation fits and how it will address not only present or future needs, it’s unlikely to attract the right attention or offer an alternative that has some sustainability (Macro).

And without a management approach that connects things together, the complications at either level are likely to sink the innovation before it launches (Meso).

By thinking about an ecosystem and organizing the three domains within it, an organization is setting itself for success — at least the potential for success.

How often have we seen great ideas bubble up from the front line staff to meet a compelling vision from senior leadership only to go nowhere because there wasn’t the management structure to make it happen?

Or consider the case of Juul, the e-cigarette manufacturer, who is now being sued for marketing harmful products to minors. Juul began as an innovator in the e-cig market, however the absence of the right technical (micro) level expertise in tobacco and marketing or the macro (systems) level skills in understanding the marketplace, the history of tobacco marketing, and how marketing regulation work has left the product open to lawsuits.

An alternative case is Apple, have shown how they built and sustained an innovation ecosystem that has seen them dominate the market with tools and technologies that continue to attract customers despite their high price point and longevity in the market. While Apple has seen slowing sales, it is hard to argue with its ability to remain consistently good at keeping our attention (and our money). Why? They have managed to invest and focus on the three domains at the same time for a long time.

Innovation is about delivering value and that requires a level of organization that allows those ideas to transform into products and services. Those levels come in threes and work together in a way that lets you appreciate the details, the big picture, and the means of holding it together.

Image credit: Lead image by Tony Hand on Unsplash.

This article was modified and expanded based on an earlier piece on Censemaking.

Designer, evaluator, educator, & psychologist supporting people in making positive change, by design. Principal @censeltd @censeacademy

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