An Organizing Framework for Innovation

How to do, manage, and think about creating impactful innovation? The secret to innovation success lies in the number three.

When looking at what makes or breaks a successful and sustainable innovation that takes 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 up-end (e.g., the established order, status quo), and the means 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 one 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 these environmental factors, there are three key ways of organizing our innovation work that can support the entire process of generating, transforming, and implementing our ideas and products into the world.

Organizing Innovation

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 the right resources and connecting them together.

Easier said than done? Not if you approach innovation through three layers of thinking about the mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets required to innovation within your specific situation.

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.

This approach focuses on three levels described below.

Micro: Technical

The first layer of organizing is what is most commonly thought of with innovation. It’s the bringing together of the right technical skills and focus to the parts of the product or service that touch your envisioned end-user. This is the part of the process that brings expertise to bear on the problem.

Even with complex problems, the need for expertise is evident at this stage. 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.

Technical expertise brings with it a focus on the small details. These aren’t insignificant, rather they are 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 with the specific disciplinary focus and skills that are germane to the problem domain being addressed.

Design thinking serves to mobilize this domain by connecting the technical expertise of the group with creative problem framing and solving.

Meso: Managerial

This middle layer is easily dismissed by innovators, yet it is what brings together the strategic vision (the macro layer) with the micro (technical) layer of innovation. Design management focuses on this aspect. It’s in the meso domain of innovation 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 level 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.

Macro: Strategy & Systems Thinking

The third domain of innovation organizing is the one that might be the most commonly associated with innovators — the big thinkers, the visionaries, the bold leaders. In truth, while these qualities are helpful, they don’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.

Strategy is about connecting resources to a mission and has many myths associated with it. What organizing 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 seeing the systems part of the ecosystem, the relationships between internal resources, external networks, and the social, political, technological, economic, and environmental landscape.

It’s also about understanding what kind of changes in the environment are likely to inhibit and facilitate the implementation and impact of the innovation once it is developed and deployed.

This domain is where systems thinking meets strategic foresight.

Bringing it together

Swimming together in the same direction

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

Without technical expertise, the innovation is unlikely to have the product or service quality — the details — that make it attractive to a new audience enough to breakthrough and overturn the status quo.

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.

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

Image credit: Lead image by Tony Hand on Unsplash.

Interested in making innovation happen? Contact us at Cense to help you with building out each of these domains in your organization.

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