The Organizational Strategist

November 3, 2010

Finding the crux of the challenge to truly innovate

Filed under: Strategy — Tags: , , , , — Whit @ 12:22 am


Innovation is a must for organizations of all types. Innovation serves as a source of renewal and invigoration of an organization over time. It’s what keeps the work activity exciting and evolves organizations inside and out. As previously mentioned, without innovation, organizations become obsolete or stagnate, at best.

Ongoing improvement is always a valuable pursuit. However, revolutionary innovation brings the biggest impact and change. This is where the most excitement is brought about. It is also all the more difficult to achieve. How does one do this properly? Getting to a revolutionary innovation often requires a change to the foundational assumptions, ideas, or established thought process. Delving into that depth and understanding all of the complications and/or complexities can be overwhelming and even deceiving.

-Find the source to deliver more impactful innovation-

To create a revolutionary innovation, you need to find the core or source of the matter. There needs to be an understanding of the topic at the basest of levels to then alter or change it. Otherwise, if the foundation is not changed then the innovation results will have less impact.

This is similar to treating the symptoms of a headache. You can take Advil, Tylenol or other pills to temporarily feel better and get by. However, the reason for the headache may surface again since the cause for pain may not be identified. If the approach was to understand why the pain occurred in the first place, then making a lasting change can be initiated. This might be to understand when the pain first occurred, what all was happening in that person’s life, what the person had eaten immediately prior to the pain occurring and so forth. Understanding that process of cause and effect can lead to an understanding of a food allergy, sickness or other source. Once cause and effect is established, the innovative change of approach can surface and prevent that stomach pain from happening again. This is a simply example, but it gets across the notion of first understanding the environment and circumstances in which a proposed innovation is to take place.

Business settings can be approached in much the same way. Establishing what exactly the target area is for improvement is the first step. Having focus around the challenge helps frame and shape what can be done. This might be to create a new product or service, improve the execution time for an operational process, finding a new way to connect with customers or many other possibilities. Once the focus is established, start identifying the variables, assumptions, scope and other forces involved. This is the start of formulating the scientific process that should be the core process to take in innovating. The management book The Other Side of Innovation by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble I mentioned in my previous articles gives a strong background on how the scientific process should be utilized when innovating. I wholeheartedly agree since innovation is about discovery and adding a disciplined approach to it makes it much more likely to derive helpful results. The scientific approach helps isolate the primary question or focus to take from all of the surrounding activity. To help with the scientific process approach of inquiring, experimenting, and continual refinement of the questions, assumptions and approach, establish clear metrics or key performance indicators. Those telling metrics can illuminate which experimental areas would be best to modify for improving the innovation outcome.

While understanding the innovation process is important, I want to focus on the framing of the innovation. It is the focus and approach that is the first step to separating the outstanding ideas from the good ideas. From observing and participating in a process, one can easily get a sense as to where and how improvements can be made. If one were to examine a supply chain or project plan that person would only need to look at the critical path of tasks to see where improvements can have big impact. Innovating in that situation is simpler and easier to understand than revolutionary innovative changes. The difficult and complex situations are where innovation can have larger impact. Yet getting to that base level where innovative changes can cause those enormous positive changes is difficult. Without deep understanding of a situation, the innovation is limited to the surface. Essentially there is a ceiling to the potential impact. Much like the earlier example, the good ideas can only treat symptoms while the outstanding ideas can change the entire system.

There are many ways of untangling the knot to find the core. Here are some approaches that I have found to be helpful in conceptualizing or plotting out the intricacies of the conundrum at hand:

  • Mapping out the value chain of activities to identify where and how value is generated through a supply chain progression
  • Illustrate activities and points of contention via the Theory of Constraints
  • Diagram contributing and opposing factors using systems thinking and/or systems modeling
  • Using the Cynefin framework to conceptualize where and how to approach different types of information and puzzles
  • Delineating the people and circles involved in a social network analysis


The approaches and methods to innovate are many. I have included a handful above to help provide clarity. Each of these approaches fit different situations and circumstances. Even if the innovation you seek is a part of a continual improvement effort, the above approaches can help illuminate where and what will create the strongest impact. Doing the background research and detailed work can fuel the fire of innovation for whatever the task at hand. Let me and your fellow readers know what your successes have been and how you achieved those results!

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