Making innovation work in organisations (based on @daveowens’ Coursera material)

Innovation Constraints, by Professor David Owens
Innovation Constraints, by Professor David Owens

Over the summer, I did an 8-week course on Coursera through Vanderbilt University, titled ‘Leading strategic innovation in organizations‘. Taught by Professor David Owens, it walked us through the material from his book Creative People Must Be Stoppedand gave me some interesting food for thought regarding things I do on a regular basis at work: how to approach business through the lens of constraints, how to overcome them, and suggestions for how to make innovation work within the constraints you have.

Professor Owens breaks innovation’s constraints into 6:

Individual constraints: People aren’t challenged to think differently because they don’t know how to. This is something I face with people I work with very often, and toolsets like Ideo’s Method Cards, even Willsh’s Artefact Cards are solutions to this. Very simply: start generating ideas, assess the concepts you come up with, and implement the best one.

Group constraints: While working in a group, the culture of the group doesn’t support risk. So you need to find ways to make risk OK. Solutions to this include developing a process that mitigates risk and makes people feel they are more in control. It also depends on the participants of the group, so they need to be chosen carefully at the outset; with an individual’s behaviours counting for more than their job titles. An energetic junior planner over a Chief Strategy Officer might actually be the right choice for a particular situation – we shouldn’t forget that.

Organisational constraints: This happens when an organisation doesn’t consider innovation strategic enough to pay attention to. It can be overcome if the organisation structures itself differently, in a way that prioritises innovation. Tips for this include knowing what your strategy is, telling the story to the people you work with, trusting ‘doers’, understanding the risks across the business, finding hidden stakeholders (as he put it ‘people who don’t necessarily have the power to say yes but who have the power to say no), following project logic, making innovation everyone’s job – not just a subset of the company, cultivating a mechanism for people to appeal decision to avoid groupthink, keeping teams aligned so you don’t go off-piste, trying not to over or under-fund it – both are problems, developing pilots & prototypes, and always – ALWAYS knowing who you’re innovating for in the first place; the audience.

Market constraints: This happens when industry fails to recognise an opportunity because they don’t see utility & value in it. Solutions to overcome this include: partnering to learn instead of to kill innovation (i.e avoiding the trap many tech companies fall into these days; Facebook bought WhatsApp to stop them becoming bigger than themselves. It’s still early days so I hope they have a plan to learn instead of sitting back after the acquisition), developing new tests for new ideas, sharing the returns to innovation with partners so you always sense-check your progress or lack of it, telling the market what’s new in advance so you prep them for your product, watching the market instead of the competition and starting at the low end of the market instead of the high end.

Societal constraints: This is when society doesn’t support the product’s values and aspirations.It happened with the Segway, for example – stellar team but it wasn’t the right time for people to accept it. The barrier can be overcome by making the product legitimate in their eyes. This can be done by accounting for different kinds of value systems in society, by getting stakeholders involved early, by making sure you’re not innovating just for yourself, and by understanding the wider issues in the world (economy, culture) and how they will affect your product.

Technological constraints: This is when you can’t really make your brilliant idea a reality because the technology to make it happen doesn’t exist yet. It can be overcome by knowing very clearly what you do and do not know – so where the knowledge gaps are, by thinking of sequencing the steps to build your product and co-ordinating arrangements, by leaving time for feedback after tests, by having a process to collect output and by being aware of the by-product of your innovation, both desired and undesired (maybe you produce a new kind of solvent that does a lot of damage to the environment even if it solves you problem; what is your solution to that in advance of your bringing it to market?).

Obviously some of this is more obvious than others, but I found it a useful lens to approach innovation through. Each week required students to do a diagnostic test to assess how impeded we were by our own constraints that fell into each of the above buckets. I was forced to think of the processes I was confronted with daily at work (and in an organisation like Omnicom there are many) as well as in myself, so I started thinking about how to improve them, and me. I don’t have all the answers yet but drawing on lessons from the course I hope to find some soon!

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