Innovation at its core is the implementation of change. The ‘Innovativeness’ of an organisation or individual is a measure of their willingness to embrace all the possibilities of change.
An innovation isn’t necessarily an invention. It is something that’s new in its context – and that could be an invention, developed and applied to some practical purpose. More often that not, however, it’s something that already exists, used or applied in a new way. For example, airline pilots now use iPads in the cockpit to display maps, flight information and checklists. This has been an important innovation in the evolution of modern airline operations, but it wasn’t necessary to re-invent the iPad to achieve this.
Some innovators are naturally restless – for them, change is a constant and the steady state represents stagnation. But most individuals and organisations are not similarly driven. They are naturally conservative and risk-averse and the prospect (not to mention the process) of change is often troubling to them. They need to learn why and how to innovate. The ‘Why’ is simple: external change happens continuously. If you don’t adapt to change you’ll die, eventually. Either you’ll be crushed by external forces, or you’ll wither because the market has changed and you didn’t adapt – you didn’t identify and pursue the opportunities created by that change process. The ‘How’ is equally simple, though ‘simple’ doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘easy’.
All that is required to be innovative is to be aware of the imperative to change, and to be able to manage the change process.
It’s that ‘Awareness’ that is crucial: Self Awareness is about the innovator’s ‘internals’ – it tells the innovator what he’s capable of, or prompts him to ask if what he’s doing is all that he can do; and it tells him what he needs to change if he wants to do more, or do something quite different.
Situational Awareness is all about the ‘externals’: what is happening externally that may force a change, or that might present an opportunity? What is happing with technology, or the economy, or market conditions, or customer behaviour?
The two feed each other. The level of the innovator’s Situational Awareness determines his ability to expose and identify threats and opportunities; the level of the innovator’s Self Awareness will determine the nature of his response.
Challenge: Response; New Challenge: New Response. It’s an iterative process made fruitful if the innovator is sufficiently self-aware and has made a sufficient investment in his situational-awareness. Knowledge resulting from Situational Awareness will stimulate insights in Self Awareness, and vice versa.
The exact nature of any response to emerging insights - the opportunities and threats, essentially – resulting from the Innovator’s Self Awareness and Situational Awareness will be conditioned, and possibly determined, by the innovator’s Technical Mastery.
No person or organisation exists in a vacuum: whether we’re talking about a charity, a government department, an elite sportsman, a star entertainer or a manufacturing company, the innovator’s activities almost always centre around a specialist domain that it must understand intimately – this is Technical Mastery.
In the case of an elite sportsman, for example, the domain is his chosen sport: its laws, the skills and physical and mental attributes required for success. In the case of a government department there might be more than one central domain: the portfolio itself – defence, perhaps, or housing, or health – and the arcane processes and the checks and balances of the parliamentary system. For the manufacturer it is the technology at the heart of his market, the technology embodied in his products and services, the manufacturing techniques that create saleable products and services, and the supporting and enabling technologies that allow the players in this market to survive and flourish.
A person or organisation wanting to be innovative needs a systematic approach to nurturing and if necessary growing Self Awareness, Situational Awareness and Technical Mastery. In a practical sense, the leaders and the internal culture they help create will determine how welcome and valued each attribute is within the organisation. Good managers will also create the internal processes and mechanisms and nurture the skills and specialist expertise necessary to exploit the insights they gather.
This ability to maintain an organisation’s openness to change, on the one hand, while managing its everyday activities as efficiently and economically as possible, while also developing timely responses to threats and opportunities, is a function of managerial and leadership excellence – call it Professional Mastery. This embraces business management, administration, human resources (recruitment and retention of the right people with the rights skills, and training where appropriate) and strategic planning. This applies to the lone innovator as much as it does to a large, complex organisation.
So, it can be seen that an innovator requires each of these four attributes in order to have any chance of sustained success: Self Awareness, Situational Awareness, Professional Mastery and Technical Mastery. Each informs and is shaped by the others. None of these four features of the successful innovator can survive in isolation, and none of them would be very useful if they could: they would lack either a purpose – in the case of the first three – or direction, in the case of the fourth. Their mutual dependence can be shown in a simple diagram.
The four attributes of an innovative organisation
Their relative importance will wax and wane as an organisation passes through the business cycle. All are essential, but Professional Mastery will help determine where the balance needs to be struck at any one time.