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.

Introduction to Poetry - by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.


I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author's name on the shore.


But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.


They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.


This poem perfectly illustrates an attitude that I describe as Obsessive Certainty Disorder. Individuals can suffer from it, but where I am seeing it more often is in organisations. While I am being a little cheeky in coining the phrase, I am in no way minimizing the debilitating impact that anxiety disorders like Obsessive-compulsive disorder can have on the lives of individuals suffering from it. One of the reasons I found it apt to create a shared acronym is that Obsessive Certainty Disorder is also linked with anxiety and the need for control. And it, too, has devastating consequences, especially when it comes to organisational responsiveness and innovation, not to mention wellbeing.

Here's the problem: in organisations where this kind of OCD is rampant, they often work very hard to rid the organisation of the very things that would enable creativity, adaptability, and innovation.  

For example, organisations value certainty and stability so they stamp out tension, paradox, and risk. They want answers, not questions; compliance and conformity, not curiosity. They optimise for efficiency and thereby remove slack, boredom, and play i.e. the conditions for learning. It is not only innovation that suffers; these conditions also create dehumanising workplaces and burnout.

Leaders say they want transformation, engagement, innovation, creativity, and agility. However, their actions and the environments they create say otherwise i.e. that what they actually value is stability, sameness, safety, certainty, busyness, and consensus. There is no capacity to tolerate ambiguity, no "blurring" allowed where newness can emerge. Questions and ambiguities are treated the same as Billy Collins's poem: tied to chairs and confessions (or easy answers) beaten out of them. 

The reality is that creativity is often born in discomfort, i.e., amid tension, boredom, confusion, and ambiguity. Children make up new games when they are bored, employing their imagination to turn ordinary things around them into something new and extraordinary. But in our constantly busy and distracted world, not even children get to be bored anymore. Modern adults can't tolerate the uncomfortable feeling and discomfort of being bored, so we think we're our children a favor when we stick a tablet in their hands to keep them occupied. 

We've all become seduced by the need to be constantly distracted or busy, undermining our creativity and sense of meaning. My friend, Jesko von den Steinen, who used to be a clown in Cirque du Soleil says: we need to be "in tune with boredom"; we must see it as a signpost that something new needs to emerge. We need to sit in it, not run away from it.

The cover of the September edition of the Harvard Business Review celebrates curiosity. In a piece on the business case for curiosity, Francesca Gino lists multiple business benefits, including increased innovation, better decision-making, and increased collaboration. Still, she then writes: "In a recent survey I conducted of 520 chief learning officers and chief talent development officers, I found that they often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests. They also believe that disagreements would arise and that making and executing decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business".

Curiosity stirs and is stirred by ambiguity. This is something good artists know. Some of the best paintings are ambiguous; they are open to interpretation. Good playwrights play with ambiguity and conscious abstraction. They leave breadcrumbs and innuendo, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. They always leave something for the imagination. Ambiguity and abstraction force the brain to make connections and stimulate curiosity, but in today's business world, we want everything to be practical and clear; we want easy answers.

This is the crux of the problem: Innovation often lies on the other side of messiness – amid ambiguity, uncertainty, tension, and risk. Sometimes it emerges in the presence of the so-called "inappropriate or silly" – in imagination, play, and serendipity. Sometimes the best ideas come to us when we are bored or while daydreaming. We welcome none of these in our serious and sterile (but predictable) work environments.

"We run this company on questions, not answers." ~ Eric Schmidt, Google

It's time that, in a world where most CEOs list innovation as a top priority, they stop ridding their organisations of the conditions where innovation might emerge. Leaders need to adopt the stance of curators, curating contexts where people can be COOL: where they can show up with Courage to ask questions; Openness to unlearn and encounter different perspectives; Observe their context and themselves through new eyes; and practice Lightness through play, imagination, and maybe even a laugh here and there ...


Being a dolphin can be hard work. Every day, a dolphin needs to eat 5% of its body weight. That means it needs to find and catch a LOT of fish. I've been watching a pod of dolphins swim up and down the coast, hunting and feeding as they go. They are busy, AND never too busy to play. It seems dolphins cannot resist a fun wave to surf or a somersault now and again, just for fun.   

Dolphins play while they work. On the other hand, humans have split play and work into two very different categories. Work is serious, and play is for fun. While we use the word "play" a lot: we play with numbers, play with ideas, play with scenarios ... we don't actually play, mainly because we believe that play doesn't belong at work.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the things we seek in our organisations, like innovation, engagement, and belonging, are enabled and enhanced through play.   

 "Along a spectrum of rough-and-tumble games, ambushing, chasing, and hide-and-seek, every mammal in its own way knows how to play. Play has its neurological substrate in the thalamic region of the limbic system, and its contribution toward the survival of each mammalian species is a profound one. Looked at a little more critically, play is about affiliation and bonding, about prowess, future ranking, and the honing of skills. It is also a mode of self-discovery, of finding one's physical boundaries and limitations, of games that end in tears, and of establishing rules—ask any child who grew up with brothers and sisters. Play and learning go hand in hand. Through play we stretch not only our muscles but, through wordplay, our vocabulary, and our imagination as well. And lest we forget, wordplay is central to political and economic one-upmanship. Let no one say there is no point in play…" - Ian McCallum (Ecological Intelligence)

We create, learn, connect and rejuvenate through play. So, the bottom line: be more like dolphins.

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