Innovating In An Uncertain World

Two words have come up frequently in leadership dialog: Innovation and Ecosystems. Several posts have described ecosystems and the dominant role they are likely to play in future economic activity. The number of organizations pursuing ecosystem-related initiatives is growing rapidly. Innovation on the other hand has been a topic of conversation for most of our economic history. Yet, something is different. The conversation about innovation culture is intensifying and the need for an innovation mindset to permeate the organization is increasingly recognized. Why? What changed? We can attribute some of the change to uncertainty. One could argue that business has always operated in uncertain environments. I would argue that a number of factors make the uncertainty in our current environment unique, comparable only at some level to past transformative periods in history. We then must consider complexity, pace, volatility, unpredictability, and the unexpected.

This visual from my Leadership Course in 2017 captured the operating environment that leaders must navigate. As the individual in the visual gazes into this future, the need for Future Thinking becomes apparent. Therefore, when we think about innovation, several possible futures must be considered. If we look at the end-to-end innovation process, three challenges stand out.

Understanding a future that exhibits the characteristics described in the visual

Deciding which ideas to pursue in an environment where ROI is not the only criteria

Rapid value realization and innovating at scale

Each of these challenges must be addressed by an innovation framework that develops and maintains an innovation portfolio. The portfolio drives short-term value realization and long-term resilience. Ideas can have a long shelf life where they may not be right for a given time but allow for rapid adaptation in the future. While uncertainty plagues every piece of the process, it has an out-sized impact on the front-end. In a recent article, Enrique Dans explains why an Organization Needs Radar.

In order to know where to apply that ability to execute, it is essential to know what is happening in the wider world; which factors are seen as most critical by the competition, which trends are emerging, and many others. I sincerely believe that the regular and systematized reading of information from within the environment greatly favors the development of a culture of innovation.

Enrique Dans – Why Your Organization Needs Radar

Very well said, with the right focus on a culture of innovation. Why is it so hard to use radar at the front-end of the process? Going back to the other word heard frequently, in a world of horizontal ecosystems, the signals grow exponentially. There are an overwhelming number of factors to consider when thinking about the future. In our shareholder-value dominated business environment, the focus is on day-to-day activities, not the emerging future. Sure, we establish teams that focus on innovation. We give them labs to play in, take trips to Silicon Valley, and convince ourselves that we have an outside-in view. All of which are required activities – but they do not necessarily create an innovation culture. Innovation must become an organization-wide responsibility where each piece of the process feeds the other in a virtuous cycle. Reimagine the future on the front-end, push the right ideas through the funnel with a focus on rapid value realization – and hold onto to those that have promise, as adaptability depends on it. When the entire organization embraces innovation, you have an ability to innovate at scale.

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