Yesterday,  spent a fascinating day at the Economist’s Innovation Summit and the evening before at the Innovation Awards dinner held in the Science Museum.

Overall it was nice to hear people focusing much more about context and execution of innovation rather than just on creativity and ideas – indeed this was one of the emergent themes of the day.

Highlight for me was Richard Seymour’s presentation which covered an amazingly wide range of topics, and from which there were a number of useful take-aways:

  • ­ “we see things not as they are but as we are” – which chimed also with the conversation I’d had with Laura Gelder-Robertson (www.glowinnovation.com) before the first session about the importance of watching customers and consumers and avoiding the bias brought by companies steeped in their own beliefs about their company’s product or service attributes.
  • ­People’s competence in adaptation blinds us to their work-arounds that suggest innovation opportunities.  He also highlighted what he calls the ‘standing waves’ – what I would describe as technological lock-in – where the designs we live with today are the residue of past constraints or decisions (QWERTY is the usual example)
  • Emergent behaviour is then evident when the change comes or the constraint is removed.
  • And the emergent behaviour we will see in future will arise from a generation that is profoundly different to the generations before.
  • Consider ’emotional functionality’ as well as ‘technical functionality’  – with Seymour attributing Apple’s success to Steve Job’s ability to build this into ‘the ethos, of which the products are just souvenirs’  (lovely phrase!)

But perhaps his most important point is the centrally pivotal role of belief in bringing an innovation to success.  The vital component is not the business case – instead it’s the belief of the champions making innovation happen.

This latter point came up again and again from the social entrepreneurs describing their activities and the commitment that underpins their persistence.

Chris Anderson of TED explained how TED grew phenomenally after they started ‘giving away’ the content.  Also there was Matt Ridley, the ‘rational optimist’ describing his ideas – see him on TED at www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex.html.  And the various panelists adding perspectives and insights from their particular histories.

A good event – a source of insight and different viewpoints, stimuli and prompts.

One thing I noticed – the landmark used to identify the entrance to the conference was, and I quote, “Lewis Hamilton’s F1 car”.  It struck me as a pity that the label referred to the driver rather than to the team of innovators who kept the McLaren MP4-23 at the peak of the game for the season.  Functionally the Economist was right in their labeling of the landmark because the public cares much more about the drama of the drivers – Hamilton versus Button and whether Schumacher can make a comeback.  But for a conference saluting innovation it would have been nice to recognise Doug McKiernan, the chief aerodynamicist at a time that F1 cars reached their peak of aerodynamic sophistication under that set of rules.  Especially since the emergent theme from the conference was context, belief, commitment and persistence; attributes displayed by the innovators behind the scenes in that most public of sports.

 

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Last month I facilitated a fascinating executive group two-day strategy session with an organisation just starting the annual business planning cycle.  As well as the issues around the uncertainty of the future they also wished to find a robust basis for making trade-offs in budgets and investments in different divisions and functions.

We began by creating a systems picture of their world, including key customers, stakeholders, allies, supply chain and so on.  The first version was an impenetrable maze of spaghetti.  However, it was immensely valuable for the team to uncover the many links between divisions and functions, especially as they served different parts of the same clients and as they each contributed to shared overarching goals.  The debate about the nature and strength of the links was useful; better still we unearthed opportunities for synergies in joint action.

 

We simplified the systems diagram to something more usable and then mapped onto it the major opportunities and threats that they face.  We used the diagram as a framework for exploring several “what-ifs”.  This enabled us to prioritise the opportunities and the threats – and now that we could see the linkages we could also see better ways to collaborate.  Some initiatives which may have been de-prioritised before were shown to be very powerful levers in the strategy and now get the attention they deserve.  Others that don’t offer the best value have been dropped.

There was another important outcome from the two days.  Because the executive team now shared a view on how the pieces of the organisation link together the debate about budgets and priorities, usually quite parochial in nature, became more reasoned and better focused.  Decisions were understood in a wider context.  Sacrifices were understood better.  It ceased being a zero-sum game.

Finally, the team decided that they will use their systems diagram to communicate with middle management – both to present the strategy and plans and as a means to build better teamwork and co-operation across the organisation.

Nice to see systems thinking in pragmatic action, really making a difference.

In helping organisations to manage change I’ve long used the idea of “executive intent” as a way of keeping programmes on course (because “when you’re up to your armpits in alligators it’s hard to remember that your original intention was to drain the swamp” – as the saying goes).  Clarifying the differences between intent and intended action is vital in keeping options open and in establishing where there is and is not room for manoeuvre.

I’m interested to see that the US Army has developed this further, moving beyond “The commander’s intent” to “the mission narrative” as a means of engaging with stakeholders – in their case the battle for hearts and minds.  The mission narrative establishes how they’d like the actions and outcomes to be perceived by external audiences.

Fascinating discussion and cross-linking at and beyond:  http://usacac.army.mil/blog/blogs/reflectionsfromfront/archive/2009/02/03/how-to-think-the-mission-narrative.aspx

And all of this depends upon the way you frame the problem…

And the way you segment and characterise the audiences…

Remembering, of course, that actions speak louder than words, so they’d better be consistent with the narrative.  Which then suggests the specific task within change management of specifically  checking the consistency between framing, narrative, intent and the choice of actions undertaken to pursue and communicate the change programme.