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Innovation: Answering Complexity with Simplicity

Posted by Brian Neville-ONeill on Thu, May 26, 2011

Innovation.  It’s a big word.  Truth be told, it has always been a fairly popular discussion point.  But, if you feel like you’ve come across it more frequently over the last year, you’re not crazy.  In a 2010 poll, 83% of top executives said that innovation will be a key part of their strategy to benefit from the economic recovery.  There’s your consensus and there’s your buzz.  Trouble is, if we were to probe a bit deeper in an attempt to uncover the fundamental hallmarks of an “innovation strategy”…well, that’s another story.  The responses would certainly be less uniform, and likely considerably less clear. 

Why?  Innovation is ruthlessly complex. describe the image

Executives and analysts aren’t wrong to come up with customized solutions, nor are they wrong to explore the depths of what innovation has to offer.  But we run into trouble when we get ahead of ourselves – moving innovation from an intellectual nicety to a critical agenda item without first agreeing on a common language.  How often do you see innovation defined consistently?  Shouldn’t that be the starting point? 

We can’t possibly create an organization (or a culture) that nurtures innovation without a basic understanding of its key elements and types.  But again, best of luck wrestling with the landscape.  A quick search reveals three, four, six, and ten types of innovation.  Some find numbers limiting, instead opting for a “broad universe” of “zones” where “the fast eat the slow.”  Well then. 

Our own John Martin prefers to start by placing innovation into three buckets: incremental, platform, and breakthrough.  He’d freely admit that the matter is open for debate.  That’s the nature of innovation.

So, before answering the innovation bell with myriad solutions (technological or otherwise), we have to establish a simple foundation to build upon.  In some ways, this is like any major organizational sea change.  Common expectations must be agreed upon.  Groups, sometimes interdisciplinary, need to be aligned.  Results should be measured in universally understandable terms and metrics.

It’s only after we decide upon definitions, goals, and metrics that we can venture into the more creative – and probably more fun – aspects of innovation.  It’s exciting to think about how to customize innovation, how to create systems that capture organic ideas, tacit knowledge, and institutional narratives.  We just have to avoid the temptation to let our collective imaginations run wild (bearing in mind that at least one person in the organization’s imagination should run wild – we are talking about innovation!), otherwise we’re setting ourselves up for a time sink.  We need to frame innovation very tightly, at least at first, so as not to overburden. 

Remember, it’s not ideas themselves that matter the most.  It’s what we do with those ideas – how we recombine, connect, and manipulate them – that has the potential to make an impact.  So let’s not make it harder on ourselves.  Let’s keep it simple.

Posted by Brian Neville-O'Neill.  Brian is CMB's Content Marketing Manager and an avid complexity enthusiast (much to his own chagrin).  You can follow him on Twitter @bnevilleoneill

limra logoInterested in learning more about complexity and barriers to innovation?  Dr. Martin and Karen Morris, former Chief Innovation Officer at Chartis Insurance, are speaking at LIMRA's 2011 Marketing & Research Conference in Boston next week.  Let us know if you're planning to attend!

Topics: growth and innovation