January 30, 2023

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What kind of innovation organization are you?

Innovation techniques come in many different shapes and forms — each one designed to improve engagement, strengthen strategic alignment, remove biases, increase the scale and speed of activity, etc. in some way or other.

Craig Wentworth

Craig Wentworth

Co-founder and Research Director at Independent Thought

Light bulb with sparks around it sits near a laptop.

Depending on the type of business you are, the area you’re working in, and the people working for you, most organizations tend to aim for a balance of incremental innovation and radical, disruptive innovation.

The former takes a more ‘continuous improvement’ stance, focusing on making relatively small process efficiency gains or performance improvements. It relies on leveraging existing knowledge and resources to solve already pretty-well understood problems. Low risk/moderate return … unlikely to bestow any major competitive advantage or shake up the industry you operate in. Some may be reluctant to even refer to it as “innovation” at all (though it can certainly share some of the same process stages, albeit on a smaller scale).

On the other hand, the latter — with a more disruptive ethos — aims for transformation impact that brings step changes in performance, new offerings, flipped business models, etc. It’s a much more challenging affair and requires the injection of new knowledge, skills and resources in order to see any bright new idea through to production. Unsurprisingly there’s no guarantee of success on this scale every time, so Really Big Wins can be quite rare.

A twin-pronged approach that embraces elements of each can help spread the risk, with more evolutionary tweaks to business-as-usual offerings perhaps able to address the more immediate change imperatives faster and with less pain (although lacking the revolutionary jolt needed to achieve more seismic shifts and hit longer term goals).

Making innovation work for you — options and opportunities

There’s not a one-size-fits-all magic innovation solution, and most organizations learn to work in a number of complementary ways concurrently in order to get the best results from the hand they’ve been dealt (in terms of their available time, money and personnel).

Activities range in terms of the level of investment required (time and money) from relatively low-cost internal idea crowdsourcing campaigns through more organization-heavy elements like hackathons, boot camps and competitions. The range can escalate right up to strategic commitments in the form of innovation marketplaces, partnerships and acquisitions (essentially buying the ideas and idea-development capability you need).

But whatever innovation vehicles you employ, they do need to be managed according to whatever style of innovation approach(es) you’ve chosen — and that’ll govern the way in which information flows and collaborations manifest.

Open innovation

Siloed innovation strategies are out of place in the modern, interconnected digital era. They lack context of what might already be happening elsewhere (in the same organization, or what you may learn from looking further afield … from existing partners, or even successful initiatives in other sectors that show strong transferability). These siloed innovation strategies also tend to lack the ability to scale or move quickly enough (because of their blinkered beginnings), and that loss of agility can lead to lost opportunities.

Whatever your sphere of endeavor, knowledge is unevenly distributed. As (Bill) Joy’s law states: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”

Open innovation approaches aim to leverage this principle and represent more of an ecosystem approach, providing a mechanism for partners to share knowledge, risks, expenses and rewards. It utilizes cross-boundary information flows, both to accelerate internal innovation and also to expand the potential market for the external application of that innovation.

Innovation hubs

But how can you reach out and effectively manage a wider-cast net of innovation work?

A network of innovation hubs can help. Through these, a system of partner co-design initiatives (potentially co-financed too, which often helps solidify collaboration relationships) can be coordinated to take a distributed funnel of ideas and organize their progression through pilots and into production services, etc. — often across traditional sector boundaries.

That organizing function is more than simple sharing.

There’s an intelligent brokerage role such hubs can perform too:

  • Helping to identify where information and assistance should flow for greatest benefit for the ecosystem as a whole (not just to facilitate the action itself)
  • Identifying which ideas stand the best chance of development through which partnerships, and how, etc.
  • Providing targeted support to smooth and speed the journey


Organizations often spin-off innovation activity from the main business, allowing them to work-up and apply ideas in different contexts and also away from perhaps a more risk-averse culture closer to home.

However, there is a danger here that the shiny new spin-off starts to become estranged and actually loses its cultural connections to the organizational core, to the detriment of the innovations under its management.

Best practice is if parent and offshoot venture can establish a mature ecosystem relationship with some degree of mutual support flowing both ways (with each taking a bit of the best of both their worlds to learn, adapt and grow together). One way to take this forward is to have the main organization take on incubation duties of late-stage innovations to close the loop (this also provides ready-made battle-testing scenarios in the context of main business).

External assist, internal catalyst

Another way to bring in fresh perspectives and experiences (not to mention spread the workload) is to build close relationships with a trusted innovation/technology partners in a consultative role.

They can act as an internal catalyst (accelerating the development of a pro-innovation culture throughout the organization), provide extra capacity (by providing specialist help to get things off the ground quickly) and build long-term capability (by ultimately up-skilling the internal workforce so the client organization becomes better equipped to innovate and act on innovations itself in the future).

You may well have some great ideas, but without a way to identify the best ones (those most relevant to the business and most likely to succeed), and actually doing something with them, you risk nothing progressing any further.

Avoid innovation pitfalls, to become the organization you want to be

There’s also no universal playbook for getting an innovation programme right, no matter what methodologies you follow or what type of innovation style you’re aiming for (every organization has its own peculiarities either to tune out or tune in to). But there are a number of considerations to take on board (to avoid falling into common bear traps) as you adapt the innovation lifecycle to your own circumstances.

Pitfall descriptions and avoidance tactics follow:

“Going nowhere”

You may well have some great ideas, but without a way to identify the best ones (those most relevant to the business and most likely to succeed), and actually doing something with them, you risk nothing progressing any further. All you’ll see will be a lot of self-reinforcing talk, but with no clear voice and little action. Plus you’ll end up alienating good people with good ideas who’ll begin to despair or feel overwhelmed by deafening, competing chatter.

Make sure you have a structured yet flexible approach (with clearly defined and repeatable processes) that move innovation initiatives through all the lifecycle stages. You also need a strong, supported and well-led innovation team (with authority, not just responsibility) to inspire and drive the change that’s needed as they progress.

That “flexible” part is important though.

If your innovation function is too formal (with too small an innovation community around it) you risk people on the outside starting to see innovation as “someone else’s problem,” when in truth you need their help to pull it through the lifecycle with you (not rely on you pushing it uphill toward them … especially if they’re less than receptive when it finally arrives at their feet).

“Same as it ever was”

A well-constructed methodology is all well and good, but without the right ingredients (i.e. a rich collection of ideas from diverse sources) you’ll struggle to come up with anything particularly innovative (or innovative enough in the right way, in the right place, for the right people).

Widen the funnel to ensure you engage with a range of potential sources of ideas, and do so in varied ways (crowdsourcing vs hackathons vs grand challenges, etc.) that can capture what might be otherwise missed if fixating on single methods of engagement too.

“Quickly out of breath”

Structure, purpose, leadership and some ideas … but nothing maintained beyond the initial burst.

Yes you may have everything in place to get started, but without a process in place to keep ideas flowing through the funnel, things will soon start to dry-up (hemorrhaging support from, and belief in, the programme as a sustainable way to keep driving the organization forward). Or you may run out of steam because you’re repeatedly only seeing ideas come through from “square peg” sources when there’s a variety of “round” and other shaped holes left to fill.

Consider engaging with a wider mix of audiences (going outside the core organization, if you haven’t already) and through a range of alternative idea sourcing strategies, to leverage the diversity you have available to you. Remember, employees are customers too (of other companies, if not your own); encourage people to call upon their experiences in all walks of their lives.

“Running on empty”

Even if your organizational leadership talks a good game, if that’s not accompanied by sufficient resources to properly back things up then you’ll struggle to keep any innovation activities going (or sometimes, even get them started!).

People can’t effectively run an innovation programme in their spare time. Make sure your sponsor has access to funds as well as a way with words.

“Yesterday’s problems”

Even a structured and well-funded approach, without proper direction, won’t necessarily get you where you need to go because the innovation needs to operate in the context of the organization's overall strategic goals (and the awareness it has of its market environment). Without such alignment, ongoing senior support will soon become difficult to maintain.

Ensure, therefore, that your programme has clear purpose, and that the measures you use to determine and prove business impact can be closely tied to organizational priorities and goals.

And be aware that these may well shift during the lifecycle, so your process will need to be agile and adaptive to avoid innovating a brilliant solution to a problem that no longer exists, where the landscape has changed under you, or where someone else has beaten you there with something better.

Avoid relying on “guerrilla innovation,” too.

It might feel like you’re getting some quick wins on the fringes, but if innovation thinking isn’t firmly embedded within the organizational culture, then it’ll always be hard to build business cases for the larger investment commitment required to take things to the next level.

It might feel like you’re getting some quick wins on the fringes, but if innovation thinking isn’t firmly embedded within the organizational culture, then it’ll always be hard to build business cases for the larger investment commitment required to take things to the next level.

Call to action 

Think about continuity.

Are you innovating for innovation’s sake?

Are there actually some “good enough” existing alternative solutions already (or things that can be easily done, with the help of the right partner) rather than embarking on risky, costly, lengthy re-invention?

Also think about culture.

Whilst your organization may not be new to the concept of innovation per se, not everyone will necessarily see it the same way. There may be gaps or misunderstandings in how people across the business (including amongst your senior leadership) view the process, its pressures and its potential value.

And think about context.

Is the problem/opportunity you’re seeking to address with an innovation initiative a priority for the organization right now?

If it isn’t, should it be? And can you influence leadership with compelling evidence as to why that’s the case? Articulating what’s in it for the customer (and why/whether you’re best placed to provide it) will help.

Be mindful in doing so that viability cuts both ways, though. Ask not just if the problem is relevant and the proposed solution viable to the customer, but also if developing and providing said solution is actually viable for the business to provide.

Will you be attempting to squeeze the organization (uncomfortably) into an ill-fitting shape in order to deliver that one thing, which it can’t realistically hope to maintain without considerable re-engineering? Fine if it’s the prelude to a spin-off or an all-in pivot to pastures new … but if not, something’s bound to give before too long. And if the customer suffers as a result, your reputation for robust and sustainable innovation will take a battering.