• John Bessant

Mastering 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 you 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, began to make more adventurous journeys.

Although set far into the future there was 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 would 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.

The craft of innovation

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 light-bulb 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.

And we need it. The evidence is clear - most innovations fail. In the early stages of development most new ideas for products or services fall by the wayside and even those that make it as far as being launched fail to scale. The same figures almost certainly apply to process innovation (changes in how we work inside our organizations) but we rarely get to see them.

We shouldn't be surprised at this - after all we are talking about an uncertain process. By its nature there are going to be surprises as we make our journey - the technology won’t work, the market isn't really there or doesn't want what we thought, competitors have stolen a march on us and launched a better alternative, the government changes the regulatory rules of the game, and so on. Uncertainty is a fact of innovation life - but it doesn’t mean we have to sit back and accept it as our fate. Research consistently shows that 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 to manage innovation

Let’s take an example. 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.

Building capability

Back to my days of space exploration and learning to become an ‘Elite’ pilot. There was another key feature to the game; when you had earned some money you could refit your space craft, putting in stronger shields, faster engines, more powerful weaponry. Eventually your ship became a key part of your capability, a vessel able to cross the universe and arrive safely at its far-flung destination.

In our innovation world the same applies. Success is not just about skilled individuals, it’s also about the organizations in which they operate. Rather than stumble through innovation as a trial and error process organizations evolve innovation capability through embedding the skills and capabilities associated with success in structures and processes. They become patterns of behaviour which form ‘the way we do things around here’ - the innovation culture. They are dealing with generic challenges but each organization finds its own version; they have ‘innovation personalities’ which characterise them.

Think about some examples. 3M is a famous role model, consistently achieving impressive innovation performance over a lifetime well in excess of one hundred years. That’s not down to luck; their ability to repeat the innovation trick is all about learning and embedding their own versions of routines around things like giving people space and time to explore (the famous 15% policy) or using communities of practice to ensure regular sharing of ideas.

It’s worth looking at the experience of other organizations who are members of the ‘100 Club’ - those that have survived and continued to thrive through innovation over a period of a century or more. They exist in all sorts of shapes and forms but have one thing in common - a set of routines containing what they have learned about successful innovation management.

They’re not alone. Toyota’s strong position as one of the world’s most productive car makers over decades isn’t an accident. It has evolved ways of innovating particularly around its processes – a version of ‘lean’ manufacturing which is called ‘the Toyota Way’. This bundle of routines includes placing strong emphasis on enabling all employees to participate regularly in incremental innovation – kaizen – and also extends to the ways in which it works with its network of suppliers, drawing them into a system which continuously innovates around quality, cost and delivery.

Pixar has routines particularly associated with managing the creative process in its films, allowing for challenge and conflict so that the movie continuously evolves through a process of learning by pivoting around what isn’t working as well as what is.

It’s an idea whose time has perhaps come – we even have the International Standards Organization (ISO) promoting guidelines for innovation management in an innovation management system.

Learning the craft...

The innovation question remains the same - how do we create value from ideas? But the context in which we try to answer it is constantly changing - and so we need to have the ability to update and extend our routines, our skills and capabilities on a regular basis.

So if we’re serious about innovation in our organizations then it's worth investing in the learning to enable it - both at the individual level and in the context of building the organization as a whole. Mastering the craft of innovation.

You can find my online course ‘ Mastering the Craft of Innovation’ here. In true ‘agile innovation’ spirit this is an evolving concept so any comments or feedback would be welcome….!

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