July 2013 Editor's Choice: Innovation: necessary but necessarily tough going
'Innovation is now so fervently favored that it almost cannot be questioned.' But this month's Editor's Choice, embracing innovation, is also realistic about why it is hard and when it is not necessary.
Embracing the Paradoxes of Innovation is part of a Special Supplement to the current edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. On the tricky topic of innovation, so often mired in academic treatise and redefinition, it is pleasingly perceptive.
The starting point is that innovation is certainly essential for breakthrough ideas and practical solutions. But it is hard. The tendency is to seek checklists and shortcuts, but the authors , Zia Khan & Kippy Joseph urge us to recognise and work around the 3 main paradoxes that they identify.
1. How to pursue innovation without falling prey to “cultification.”
The focus on innovation has been so successful that ‘ironically it has also produced, through its very success, a kind of cult around innovation, its methods, and its most successful practitioners.” It has become the default option, even when it is not necessary.
Rockefeller Foundation, the funder of this special issue, is refreshingly frank. There has been such an explosion of new projects and pilot programs in the mHealth Allicance that they are struggling with “pilotitis.”
Is it a problem? Yes. So much effort goes into pilots that not enough goes into execution. The risk is that none of the innovations get taken to scale. The solution is dedicate time and attention to execution.
2. How to collaborate without being derailed by compromise.
Innovation requires new skills so leads to collaboration - as our Hub theme this month also shows. But collaboration is often put together by visionary leaders, who can see the sum of the parts that is greater than the whole. Once up and running, managers with organizational priorities take over, more focused on the risks than the goals, generating ‘elaborate rituals of bartering and protectionism.’
The solution lies with putting the right people in charge, who can continue to see and build the big picture.
3. How to scale up breakthrough inventions within the established conventions of organizations.
This third paradox focuses on the ‘disconnect between the process of invention—developing the core, original breakthrough—and the effort required to scale it up and integrate it into a larger, conventional system. The skills of the inventor are rarely those of the integrator.’
It is hardest for large organisations: however many innovation teams and initiatives they have, they struggle to incorporate them into the mainstream.
The example of Root Capital is given to demonstrate a solution: in developing their approach to agricultural finance, innovation teams had their own budget and metrics but collaborated closely with operational teams in the field.
The solution the authors conclude: ‘In the quest for the next innovation, an organization need neither marginalize its innovation capability nor place it on a pedestal. Regular interaction between the innovation group and the implementation group yields the best innovations.’
These paradoxes inevitably crop up, they observe. The cause tensions or dissonance. But they are also signs that innovation is happening. The message is don’t ignore them, expect them and work through them.
I didn't get a checklist from this, nor a Monday morning 'to do' list, but it struck me as a useful check on the assumptions we can make about innovation: it's not the only thing to do and it's not the easiest either.
All previous Editor's Choice blogs can be found here.
For a perspective on innovation in the BIF portfolio, see the recent blog on the four I's of Innovation by Soji Apampa, Nigeria Country Manager.