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Learning to manage innovation - a glimpse into the future

(Click the image to listen to the podcast)

One of the few good things to come out of the current pandemic crisis has been the steady flow of examples of impressive innovation. If we needed a reminder that we are a wonderfully inventive, creative species then we haven’t had to look far in recent months. Faced with the urgent challenges of providing life-saving equipment like ventilators or protective equipment the response was not only rapid but along a broad frontier, bringing together players from different worlds to share their knowledge and other resources in the service of meeting the challenge.

We had players from worlds as far apart as vacuum cleaners, Formula One motorsport and aircraft design coming together to co-create novel solutions - fast.

The effort was sustained as the targets shifted, finding ways to create and then test, approve, manufacture and distribute vaccines as a way of moving on to the offensive against the virus. We’re not out of the crisis yet but there are optimistic signs, and much to be taken from our ability, once again, to mobilise creativity and innovate.

Which is a good thing because even if we do manage to get through this crisis and back to a kind of normality it will still be one in which we need innovation, urgently and across a broad front.

Not least in the area of sustainability. It’s becoming clearer than ever that we have a lot more to do to try and save our planet - extreme weather events like heat waves, fires and floods give an almost Biblical sense of urgency to drive innovation search. Images of fish dying because of ingested plastic provide stark reminders of the environmental damage we continue to do and the pressure is on to find ways of being more careful with our planetary resources. According to the WWF we are consuming those at the level of 1.75 planet’s worth, a figure likely to rise to 2 by the year 2030. Which is a problem since we only have one planet to actually live on and supply them.

If those crises weren’t enough we’ve still got plenty of other challenges not yet resolved - a third of the world's people have no access to clean drinking water, a billion can’t read (with hundreds of millions of children set to follow in their foot-steps), close to 100 million people are homeless refugees - the list goes on.

And behind all of this we need the engine of economic growth to help the recovery from the pandemic. We need innovative businesses to power the economy, to employ people and to create the wealth which we can use to deliver public services like healthcare, welfare and education.

So we need innovation more than ever. But we also need to be able to make it happen effectively, to be able to repeat the trick. There’s too much at stake to trust to luck; we need to learn to manage the process.

The good news is that we know quite a bit about it. Innovation isn’t a single flash of inspiration, a lightbulb moment. Instead it’s a journey to create value from ideas - and we know a lot about that journey and what influences success and failure along the way. We’ve got a map and it's a well-worn but reliable one. In fact over the past hundred years or so we've managed to capture and codify the knowledge enough to allow the idea of an innovation management standard. That sounds paradoxical but what it means is that we have a stable body of knowledge about the kind of system an organization needs to put in place to enable innovation to happen regularly and repeatedly. It will vary; it needs less formality in a startup than in a giant 50,000 person corporation. But there is still a discipline and a body of knowledge to draw upon and the International Standards Organization is now actively promoting it.

That doesn’t mean that making the innovation journey is simple. Having the knowledge is one thing but we still have to adapt and configure it to our own circumstances.

The challenge remains the same - how do we create value (commercial and social) from our ideas? And the overall structure of the journey - the stages we need to pass through like search, select and implement - is the same. But the context in which this plays out, the landscape in which we are travelling varies widely. We need to learn to innovate in different worlds.

It might be the world of the start-up - a high risk roller coaster ride at high speed, fuelled by passion and energy and built on dreams. That world is all about scarce resources, high uncertainty, lack of knowledge, groping through a maze in the dark. And for every start up success story there are thousands of failures, often representing people with wonderful ideas, energy and passion but lacking the skills to translate those into something of sustainable value.

Or it might be the world of the growing business, flush with the success of a first venture and now trying to repeat the innovation trick. Adding complexity - new offerings, new markets, new partners and bringing in more people and the structure and systems to enable them to innovate.

Successful growth doesn't make maturity a comfortable place for innovation. Instead it brings other challenges - how to maintain a steady flow of both incremental and radical innovations and do so across a broad front? How to create an innovation culture in which many people can be involved in the innovation task, and how to align the efforts? And how to recapture the start-up capability, how to build in the capacity for challenge and risk taking, how to create the capacity to renew the business?

For social innovators the same growth challenges are there but trying to make the world a better place through innovation brings in additional challenges. How to balance the passion and stay true to the core values underpinning the social mission with the need to bring in a network of partners who may not always share this commitment? How to work with multiple stakeholders? How to balance the need for risk-taking with ethical concerns for vulnerable people?

And in the public sector, managing the tricky three-way balancing act. We need to take risks and we need to ensure there’s sufficient reward for taking them. But we also have to take care of reliability - we can't not deliver key public services. That often leads to a culture of risk aversion, playing safe - no-one wants to try new things out if they are going to get blamed when things go wrong. But the rising costs of public services and the growing demand mean we can’t carry on without innovation, sometimes of the radical kind. - balancing risk, reward and reliability.

So there are plenty of journeys to be made, plenty of innovation adventures to be had. What they share is that there’s an element of learning to become better travellers, mastering the skills and capabilities which will help make those journeys more effectively.

We understand that innovation doesn’t just happen, nor is there a magic innovation machine which simply requires feeding with the right ingredients to guaranteed a steady stream of successful value creating innovations. It’s about people and they need the skills and capabilities to undertake the innovation journey.

As the famous management writer Peter Drucker once said, ‘innovation is what entrepreneurs do’ - and they do it in many different contexts. We may use the label to describe what goes on in a startup but we need the same set of skills in a project team working in an established organization. We need people able to drive through change to help improve the services we deliver inside public sector organisations like schools and hospitals. We need social innovators, working in different ways to create social value to help make the world a better place. And in hundreds of other spaces - the local scout group, the online carer’s support group, the organizers of the after school club and the many other social groups which share a common purpose - the same pattern of shared creativity and value creation operates.

Whilst passion and energy help they don’t necessarily mean innovation succeeds. Most innovation fails - not surprisingly, it goes with the territory. It’s all about uncertainty and you can’t make an innovation omelette without breaking eggs. The point is not that innovation is difficult and (especially at the early stages) it often fails - but rather to use that to help learn. Intelligent failure is at the heart of today's agile methodologies and the core approach is probe and learn, experiment and pivot.

But it would be very wasteful to keep going back to zero after each innovation project, whether it succeeds or fails. Far better to try to distil learning about the how - what worked and why? In other words we can learn to manage innovation, build up the skills and capabilities to repeat the trick.

At an individual level this is about skills development but in the organizational context it is about skilled people plus a set of ‘routines’ - embedded behaviour patterns which shape ‘the way we do things around here’. They can be supported and reinforced with tools, structures, techniques etc - but underneath there are ways of enabling people to deploy their innovation skills effectively.

It’s a craft.

The craft of innovation

There’s a wonderful computer game, originally developed back in the 1980s called ‘Elite’ – you can still find versions of it today. It was a simple but enthralling game involving learning to pilot a spacecraft and then criss-crossing the universe in a series of inter-planetary trading activities. The early stages were all about mastering the craft skills of being a pilot – crashing repeatedly as you tried to dock with a space station, managing to load your first cargo and then being attacked and shot down by pirates, finally making it to your destination and turning a small profit on your trading mission. But over time you got better, developed your skills and capabilities, and began to make more adventurous journeys.

You learned the craft.

Although set far into the future there’s a kind of resonance with a much older model - that of the medieval craftsman. The Guilds were pretty good at managing vocational training, with a system which still has value today. Whether you were going to be a stonemason, wheelwright, thatcher or blacksmith your training followed the same path. You’d start at the bottom, learning as an apprentice through a mixture of formal training at the hands (and often fists) of a Master who would mentor your progress through a long sequence of mistakes.

But eventually your learning paid off; you were released out into the wider world as Journeyman, able to take your trade and practice it alone. (Note the word ‘practice’; you still had a lot to learn but you did this now by accumulating a variety of different experiences working on different projects).

Eventually there’d come a day when you’d built up enough hard-won craft knowledge to be able to spend your time not only building cathedrals but also passing on your knowledge to another wave of apprentice stonemasons. You’d become a Master craftsman.

This idea of learning a craft offers us a useful metaphor for the world of innovation. We know it’s not magic - creating value from ideas doesn’t simply happen when a lightbulb flashes above someone’s head. It involves a journey, one as fraught with uncertainty and nasty surprises as any of my interstellar jaunts. And whilst each journey is unique there’s a pattern to them which is shared; innovation involves key stages from ideation right through to capturing value. Whether we are in the public or private sector, working in a start-up or part of a large established organization the same challenges emerge.

Making the journey is going to require considerable skill if we are to avoid crashing somewhere along the way. But learning these skills doesn’t have to be a matter of trial and error alone. Just like our medieval Guilds there is a wealth of accumulated experience which can help. In the case of managing innovation we’ve been studying and sharing knowledge about making the journey for around a hundred years. That’s a valuable resource to draw upon.

The evidence is clear - there are things we can do to stack the deck more in our favour and these come down to learning the craft of managing innovation.

Learning the craft of innovation

Whatever label we give them there are plenty of people around who share the need to enable innovation. So there’s a huge demand for finding ways to enable them to learn and deploy the capabilities around innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. Helping them master the craft of innovation.

There’s growing recognition of this with policy makers calling for the development of key skills around creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. And with this comes support for programmes and activities designed to help deliver these capabilities.

Which puts a premium on thinking about how we approach supporting the learning of these life skills for the future.

The good news is that there is growing opportunity and interest. From being a subject taught in business schools and engineering classes we now have a much broader palette of offers and short and long form courses to suit a wide audience. Schoolkids now have the chance to explore the joys of starting their own classroom based businesses. The same thing is happening at universities and other higher education establishments, with students invited to join boot camps and work in incubators, trying out the tools and techniques to equip them either to start their own ventures or be experienced and skilled enough to be attractive employees for established organisations.

In the area of social innovation there’s a proliferation of courses and resources to help enable startups to establish and scale, drawing in an ever wider variety of potential entrepreneurs. The Diversity Business Incubator for example is working with refugee women in the Plymouth area trying to help them establish a foothold in a new country and achieve an identity through starting ventures based on food and other….

In the public sector there are laboratories and training camps, courses and resources to help bring an innovative mindset and find ways to channel ideas. for example in the Torbay and South Devon Hospitals Trust junior doctors are required to work on process innovation projects as part of their final training whilst programmes like the Productive Ward have been in operation for many years, equipping medical staff with skills in innovation.

And change is happening in the not-for-profit social change world. The humanitarian aid sector is, by any stretch of the imagination, a challenging world to work in. But it's one which has innovation right at the centre. We sometimes speak about innovation as a matter of survival; in the world of disasters (natural or man-made) it is literally so. Unless we can find solutions and fast to problems of providing clean water, food, healthcare and shelter vulnerable people are at serious risk.