Innovation tension lies in our layers and structures

Reduce the tension in the layers or structures for innovation to emerge.

A really hard part of managing in larger organizations is in managing the layers and competing forces. Hierarchy dominates the speed of what we do.

The tensions surrounding innovation
The tensions surrounding innovation

Often we forget to reinforce the very design within our organizational structures, we leave role structures incomplete and uncertain and we set the deliverables in often ‘woolly’ ways so we can side step the often intransigence within our organizations way of working . This just further promotes uncertainly and it is not an adaptive organization but one left open so the leadership can side step when it suites their purpose.

In leaving this so open to ignoring one minute, using it as the ‘whipping boy’ the next they slowly immobilize those underneath. These create unnatural built-in tensions and often create a shearing effect.

They grind against each other, like tectonic plates that force further disruption and upheaval.

They ‘freeze out’ creativity unless it ‘arrives’ from the top of the organization. Eventually the organization dies as it is not generating new forms of creativity from within, this has been hollowed out by this imposing from the top.

Organization design needs to change. We need to ensure creative knowledge flows up and down organizations. We need to change our thinking from layers into a network of connected parts that we keep small, flat and focused but constantly aware their existence is dependent on others outside their mini ecosystem. Today these different layers actually require several levels of reconfiguration designed into the organization. We add layers onto our layers and each time we are constraining the organizations or the individuals to explore, they stay ‘trapped’ within their space.

Imposing the killer effect of time just because of a financial calendar is stupid – it hurts innovation significantly

Just look at how organizations impose time on us. One really critical one to address and to ‘kill off,’ is the pressure of time. Imposing time as a condition for innovation can be a real killer. Time horizons to achieve different tasks often cannot be ‘legislated’ or ‘dictated’ but sadly they are forced on reluctant innovators responsible for delivery of new concepts.

We need to re-establish the difference between goals within a certain period covered (one year), objectives – attained later but are progressed within the period and finally ideals– those unattainable but clearly possible concepts, that progress at slower rates and go well beyond normal goals. Innovation works within this environment, actually it will thrive.

Not just the incremental, but the radical, disruptive and breakthrough innovation craved for by the top management, can finally have a ‘decent’ time horizon to be managed through. Planning needs to account for all three horizons and managing across these needs different mindsets, irrespective of the industry you are in, it does not matter if you are building planes or developing food products. Managing innovation across the three horizon methodology helps reduce tensions, design innovations that can be more radical or breakthrough.

Tacking the incompatibles to ease the tensions

We really should stop pretending that innovation is not so hard and actually state it is often incompatible to much of what we perform on a daily basis. The task of managing intangibles (unknowns) alongside the tangibles (known) needs greater appreciation of their complexities, and the difficulties of balancing the two for achieving  a ‘decent’ result.

Leadership, I believe, would need to understand innovation far more in this demanding environment of inquiry. No wonder it is often ducked and just vaguely talked about as much of innovation understanding is still poorly understood in its impacts and effect. We do need to address this lack of serious innovation management within our organizations.

Reducing activities and replacing these with outcome orientation

Innovation is no different from what we expect from efficiency or effectiveness; we want to see the outcomes.  Outcome orientation holds a precious key to think about far more.  We have struggled on many occasions to clearly establish the really good metrics for judging innovation. They seem to get lost within organizations. Part of the innovation activities has been assigned to some other cost centre, or the capacity was already established and we often don’t break these down and assign these clearly enough to the different activities, we should, but into outcome orientation ones. Were the activities contributing to efficiency or innovation? We judge these through effectiveness of the outcome.

We need to balance existing performance engines for repeatable everyday tasks with innovation delivery engines for new activities to make our organizations function more effectively. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble have offered some thoughts on this at the implementation stage, although these still need more examination and exploration.

Also Scott Anthony has pointed out in his article “Negotiating Innovation and Control’ on the different ways to balance tension there is one, in my opinion, that needs deeper investigation and development and that is the ‘ambidextrous’ one. This makes distinctions but links the parts of the whole organization by developing competing frames, not competing forces. Roger Martin suggests in one of his books “The Opposable Mind” that we need to develop “integrative thinking” as part of this need to change.

Innovation should be alongside as a equal partner to efficiency. It becomes efficient innovation and core to what you do and how you operate

Seeking constant efficiencies is actually slowing down our organizations. We need to do the opposite, to speed them up and capitalize on finding innovation opportunities quickly and then knowing how to scale them equally fast. We need to do this by developing the competencies and understandings of experimentation, piloting, prototyping in fast, discreet and measured ways

The worrying thing is any dynamics within the system are dominated by the slow components, and the rapid components simply have to follow along.

“Slow constrains quick, slow controls quick”.

The only way to ensure a speeding up is to be coherent on the purpose, clarify the bounds and governing principles that need to be enacted and evolve the organization design away from layers and hierarchy. We need to build up a series of inner networks that depend on each other but constantly reach out to connect, share and exchange but more within a organizational design that is flat but highly responsive and inter dependent to work well. This needs orchestration not hierarchy in its managing.

Simply by consciously working on all the dysfunction points within an organization will certainly reduce the tensions, reduce the ‘shearing effects’ and allow the organization in all its layers to ‘react’ and be allowed to come back into a balance, where innovation sits equally alongside efficiency, especially if both focus on outcome orientation and that certainly is not the current business way we often see today.

2 thoughts on “Innovation tension lies in our layers and structures

  1. Hello Paul, a great article. l enjoyed your description of an organization’s obstacles to – or its stifling of – innovation and your positive solutions to set innovation free.


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