On innovation: happy accidents, Macgyver and COOL contexts.

By Sonja Blignaut

Innovation. It is a word that features on almost every list of values in the corporate world. It has long been a "holy grail" in business, and yet very few companies consistently get it right.  The word has become so hyped that it has almost become meaningless. For many, it is synonymous with breakthrough invention and perpetual novelty, creating the false impression that it is the domain of creatives or design thinkers, i.e. that only some people are able to innovate.  This in turn has led to “innovation units” or “business of tomorrow” spin-offs that create unhealthy "us and them" cultural dynamics in organisations.

The assumption that creativity is a necessary pre-condition for innovation has sparked lucrative industries focused on creativity and design thinking training and "creative disruption" processes to help people "think outside the box."   However, when one looks at stories of actual innovation, it becomes clear that creativity and innovation are sometimes related, but not always.  Both tend to emerge together when circumstances are conducive.  This means that catalysing innovation has a lot to do with the context and that we should therefore focus more of our design and leadership efforts on curating conducive environments.

This raises the question: what does a conducive environment look like? There is no single correct answer, but there are signposts and clues when we look at patterns in stories of innovation.

  1. Being present, Open and Observant is key to innovation.

"There'll always be serendipity involved in discovery." – Jeff Bezos

Imagine Van Gogh's Starry Night without the beautiful deep blue sky. Suppose a color maker in Berlin didn't try to skimp on costs by using cheap ingredients to create a cochineal red batch. In that case, Van Gogh may never have had a stable synthetic blue pigment to paint with. Before the accidental invention of Prussian Blue, the only other options available to artists were either too expensive or unstable fast-fading vegetable dyes. Prussian Blue (named for its place of origin) became an instant sensation in the art world and fashion industries.

Similarly, microwave ovens came about because a radar technician noticed a chocolate bar melting in his pocket while working on a radar magnetron. And antibiotics were discovered because of a messy laboratory and a dirty petri dish.

From Penicillin to Prussian blue paint to Microwave ovens, many of the great inventions we take for granted today came about by accident.   Such serendipitous events or "happy accidents" can happen to anyone, even the most uncreative among us. However, we need to be present and aware so that we don't miss the opportunity when it presents itself. Suppose Alexander Fleming had simply washed his petri dish without paying attention to the dead bacteria inside. In that case, we might never have had penicillin.

How do we create conditions for noticing?

  • Ensure there is sufficient slack in the system: our over-focus on efficiency has effectively eliminated all the slack or redundancy from our work contexts.  If people are rushing to meet unrealistic deadlines or drowning in work, they will not have the capacity to present or notice patterns or anomalies. Efficiency at all costs is the enemy of learning and innovation, yet it is so entrenched as a best practice that it takes courageous leadership to create the space for the inefficient slightly messy environment where innovation thrives.
  • Encourage people to pursue learning in non-work-related fields. Steve Jobs' calligraphy classes were instrumental in Apple's famous design innovations. The more diverse knowledge people have to draw from, and the broader their networks, the greater the chances for serendipitous discovery.
  • Increase the cognitive diversity in your teams, including neurodiverse people. We need the productive tension of different ways of seeing and thinking; otherwise, nothing new can emerge.
  1. Curate the conditions for Courageous spontaneity, improvisation, and bricolage.

"Great innovation is built on existing ideas, repurposed with vision". — Jake Knapp

Breakthrough innovations most often come from combining two ideas that everyone sees every day, but no one has put together (yet). — Gary Hoover

Innovation is not always about coming up with something completely new or novel. It is often a long slow evolutionary process of incremental improvement or adaptation. But there is another kind of innovation called exaptive innovation or radical repurposing: finding new or unintended functions for existing capabilities or products.

Exaptation involves a 'pivot' from one function to another without a lengthy and costly development process. It often happens during times of crisis, when we are forced to be resourceful (for more of this, see no 3). Think, for example, about the repurposing of dive masks as respirators when people were dying because of equipment shortages in hospitals during the pandemic.  We don’t need a crisis in order to enable this kind of innovation though.  Again we need the ability to notice, but we also need to curate contexts where our innately human abilities of curiosity, imagination, and playfulness can flourish.

Someone who exemplifies this kind of resourcefulness is the 1980s television hero MacGyver.  He was a bricoleur: someone able to construct or improvise something useful with whatever materials are immediately available.  Every episode challenged MacGyver to save the day, often armed with only a swiss army knife (or paper clip) and some junk lying around.  Granted, it wasn’t very realistic, but still inspiring!

Practical ideas to consider:

  • Design interventions that force the spanning of organisational boundaries. Ideas for repurposing often occur when we encounter a need or a capability that exists in another area.  If we never cross the boundaries of our silo or community, we may never know what is available for repurposing.  One way that we are working with clients to achieve this is the creation of cross-silo learning pods where people from different teams learn together on our complexity fitness course.
  • Often, people are inhibited by a perceived lack of permission to “be silly at work”. We can all be curious, imaginative, and playful, but unless we perceive it as acceptable, we will not.
  • Encourage Lightness as a way of being.  Laugh together, play together, meet outside in nature instead of the office and appreciate beauty together.  We already use the language of play: we talk about playing with ideas, budgets, strategies, and scenarios.  It's time to start playing in the real sense of the word.
  • Create budgeting policies that enable safe-to-fail experimentation. Repurposing (and other kinds of innovation) depend on the ability to try and learn.  Define what safe-to-fail means in your particular contexts and align budgeting and performance management policies to ensure governance systems don’t discourage innovation.
  1. Never waste a good crisis.

"Never let a good crisis go to waste" – Sir Winston Churchill.

In a crisis, restrictive rules and old ways of doing things often fall away because of necessity. A window of opportunity opens up where things are possible that usually would not be. An excellent example is the extremely rapid transition to remote work at scale at the start of the pandemic. Organisations all over the world managed to shift entire workforces in 3 to 5 days without change management plans, special leadership interventions - “It just happened”.  People were trusted to figure out the best way to do things, and restrictive policies and processes fell away.  Innovation happened it had to.

Suddenly assumptions and policies about who could work remotely fell away, and we just made it happen.   Necessity is the mother of invention (as the saying goes).

According to Dave Snowden, time pressureresource starvation, and a shift in perspective are pre-conditions for the emergence of innovation. A crisis forces us to find creative solutions to urgent or even existential problems.

A few years ago, Cape Town was in the unenviable position of being the first major city to face the unthinkable: "Day Zero" – the day the taps run dry. In the face of such a dire situation, everyone, from students in university labs to entrepreneurs and ordinary people, came up with innovative ideas and experiments to save water.

One Capetonian wrote this reflection in a Facebook post: "The conclusion I've come to is that convenience not only robs us of creativity, it makes us complacent and unaware. The inconvenience of running out of water has literally woken people up. Woken them up to how much they waste, and ingenious ways to save. The inconvenience of this crisis has woken us up to our creative potential to solve the problem".  

Thankfully the city managed to avoid Day Zero, and many of the innovations remain.

While it's not feasible to manufacture a crisis to stimulate innovation, we can make sure we prepare to make optimal use of that brief window of opportunity to do things radically differently.

  • Make the deployment of an innovation team part of your crisis response planning. So when you deploy crisis response teams, other teams are deployed simultaneously, tasked with looking for opportunities to innovate.
  • Document the decisions and actions taken during the crisis. These often spontaneous actions offer clues to removing barriers to innovation even in normal circumstances. We usually forget to document in the heat of the moment, so make this a formal role to ensure it gets done.
  1. Don’t limit innovation to a unit or area, Open it up - democratise it.

Sometimes the best ideas emerge from people we wouldn’t normally pay attention to.  New joiners, who are able to see the company with fresh eyes, blue-collar workers who work “at the coal face”, call center agents who speak to clients all day long, and even janitorial staff who often know more about the actual company culture than HR does.  Instead of limiting innovation to a select few, create the conditions where ideas and communication can flow more easily: from the edges of the organisation, between silos, and even from the outside in.

Here are a few practical things you can think about doing.

  • Instead of employing consultants when the need arises, co-create solutions internally. For example, when an urgent need exists to cut costs, involve the entire workforce in experimenting with new and innovative ways to save. This will save a lot of consulting fees and mitigate the risk of unintended consequences of implementing draconian top-down cost-cutting measures.
  • Create a view of the organisation focused on flows, not things.  Organisation charts focused on units, roles and hierarchies often hide the flows that make the organisation work (or not).  Focus on finding barriers to flow and eliminating them.  These could be unhelpful policies, unfit structures, or cultural norms … a key role of leadership in complexity is to enable flow.

We in summary: to intentionally create the conditions for innovation focus on curating COOL environments where people are free to show up with Courage, Openness, Observing, and Lightness.  It may sound simple, but it runs counter to much of the prevailing business practice.  However, in today’s disruptive world, we no longer have a choice ...

... the waves will keep coming, we need to learn how to surf.

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