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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.

Thankfully it’s a world where innovation happens extensively and whilst the demand side remains almost overwhelming in scale the availability of innovations to help deal with it is improving. But there are plenty of challenges to making the journey from great ideas to creating this kind of value. We’d recognise the same themes from elsewhere in the innovation world - how to move from a value proposition (a theory about how we might possibly create value) to creating a robust solution which actually does? And even if we get that far, prototyping and developing our way to a successful pilot the bigger journey still lies ahead of us - how to move it to scale?

Part of the solution to these puzzles lies in capacity-building - developing the skills and capabilities needed in the people who work in the sector. Meeting the challenge of learning the craft of innovation. There's been a lot of interest in this over the past ten years and the sector is slowly moving to a position where innovators recognise that success is ‘more than just luck’ - and are working to master the skills and capabilities around managing innovation. Training programmes around the challenge of building robust business models, learning to use key tools in innovation management, mastering the required skills to manage their journey to scale - there is a great deal now available to support the learning process.

The supply side is also changing, becoming more diverse both in the number of players and the range of resources they offer. The consulting industry, for example, no longer simply trades on providing expert knowledge; instead it increasingly seeks to transfer and help embed innovation skills inside organisations and does so through multiple inputs. Supply chain learning has been a key feature of the work of organisations like Toyota, passing on process innovation skills through guest engineers acting as learning facilitators for learning. Software vendors like Hype see their role not only as providing the tools for managing innovation across a wide range of organisations in many sectors, it’s also about training and development around organising and managing innovation.

This proliferation also poses a challenge. As we’ve seen we know a lot about the ‘what?’ question in innovation and we have access to a knowledge base with which to equip people. But we also need to look hard at the ‘how’ question.

How can we enable different learners in different contexts to master the craft of innovation? This isn't easy - for a start the subject is not a theory (although there are many strands of theory which can help inform the craft). It is something learned by doing and reflecting; smart innovators learn and improve over time. So classroom based models may be incomplete, although they may well help provide foundations.

But simply learning by doing and failing is also not sufficient; Experience is a great teacher and we can learn to avoid failure next time if we take care to distil lessons. The trouble is that this is wasteful; a better approach might be to integrate the ‘body of knowledge’ with the world of practice, a sort of ‘just-in-time’ model where relevant knowledge can be brought to bear in the context within which the need for it arises.

The pattern is complicated further by the proliferation of channels through which learning can take place. Flipped classrooms and project-based learning have a good pedigree but to them now must be added the world of online and blended learning. And then there is the role of powerful new technologies - for example virtual and augmented reality - which allow simulation and exploration in hitherto impossible fashion.

All of which makes having a picture of the future and the ways in which we can help people master the craft of innovation rather important. Not least because the future has yet to happen; the better we understand and explore it the more we can can identify desirable scenarios and then ‘back-cast’ from them, roadmapping our way to relevant policy and practices which we can introduce today.

VISION - the project

That’s the thinking behind the VISION project which began back in 2019. Conceived as a ‘Knowledge Alliance project within the EU’s Erasmus Plus scheme, it brings together a mixture of university researchers, practitioners form a variety of public and private sector organizations, policy makers and support organizations around a core question.

How can teachers and trainers stay current and address the dynamic opportunities of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship teaching and training?​

Using an integrated and proven suite of tools for systematically exploring the future the VISION team has engaged with over 120 stakeholders, built a variety of scenarios and explored them in depth through workshops, webinars and other tools to create a detailed picture of the emerging challenges and opportunities in this space of learning facilitation around innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship.

This process highlights challenges for many different actors - learners themselves, of course, but also those who facilitate learning, teachers, trainers, coaches, consultants, who do so in many different settings. And the wider organisations in which those learners work - how to create a learning context in the middle of the productive workspace? How to blur the boundaries between learning and work, how to make immersive learning contexts?

For conventional providers with classroom heritages, how to find new ways of enabling learning, reaching out? Remote and blended learning, new technologies, new approaches.

What about the demand side - the market to whom is all of this learning support provision is addressed? Clayton Christensen’s visionary challenge to higher education suggested significant potential for disruption, not least by radically extending the market space to include those previously unserved or underserved by existing provision. Will digital technologies and falling costs in course and learning resources mean that many more people can access the skills of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship? And what will this do to existing structures and business models?

We already have examples of this - like the University of Southern New Hampshire which is providing degree level training to people living in refugee camps. With seed funding from Audacious to pilot the program, they’re now seeking to scale their solution to 15 countries over the next five years, lowering the cost of the degree and enabling more than 16,000 refugees across 23 sites to improve their futures.

Such changes represent fault-lines along which the current models of learning may fracture - but like any crisis there are also significant opportunities opening up. As Kathrin Moeslein, Vice President of one of Germany’s oldest and most prestigious universities put it:

We’re going to be exploring this future landscape in a series of blogs/podcasts linked with this one. We’ll look at some of the key dimensions of change which the VISION project identified and to bring it to life we’ll try and explore through the experience of a number of different personas. What do they see, hear, feel as they play their role? What makes it a good experience for them? What do we need to do today to build for their (and our) innovation tomorrow?

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