A new way to look at organisational innovation

At its core - innovation starts out surprisingly humbly, builds, dies and runs in cycles over time.

At its core - innovation starts out surprisingly humbly, builds, dies and runs in cycles over time.

Like so many things these days that are given the spotlight - the reality behind most innovation is not nearly as sexy as media titles would have you believe.

We tend to attach very grand and impressive sounding adjectives to the word 'innovation' in hopes of drawing attention to the fact that something singular has changed, someone spotted it...and now somebody's going to take the fall for missing it.

Large companies fear singular 'disruptive' innovation, venture capitalists salivate at the idea of singular 'radical' innovation and tree huggers loose their minds at the thought of singular 'green' innovation.  But the kind of innovation that the PR machines behind Musk and Bezos peddle is merely the manifestation of the cresting of a very long 'innovation wave', which started ages before the headline event; and grew in small, tiny, minuscule little jumps forward that over time collectively formed the 'innovation' that everyone celebrates.

In 2007 when Apple unveiled the iPhone that changed the world in an instant, everyone spoke as if this new technological artefact magically just appeared out of nowhere; and in an instant it subdivided the world into the 'time before iPhone / and the time after iPhone'.

But before the iPhone there were telephones, there were cellphones, there were laptops, there were iPods, there were touchscreens, there were Sony Walkmans, there were all the makings of the ingredients that were creatively combined together into a new device, the Apple iPhone, that changed the course of history...in 'an instant'.

The iPhone wasn't a singular moment of innovation genius - it was the result of over a century and a half of telephone device evolution that started way back when Antonio Meucci invented the first basic phone in 1849.

We like to consider 'breakthrough innovation' as these dramatic ruptures in the evolution of human consciousness, but in reality innovation is just the constant focus of daily improvement over time in relation to changes in the contextual environment.

The focus of this collective innovation tends to flow in waves of optimism and decline, each wave building on the lessons from the past and then falling flat before reemerging in a brand new form. It's almost Hegelian in its repetitive pattern.

In economics these waves of progress and decline - that are said to last for 60 years at a time - are known as Kondratieff Waves, named after Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff.  

Individual inventions accumulate to form innovations, which drive the waves of growth of economies in capitalist countries.

Kondratieff Waves of innovation
At a micro-scale this same cyclical pattern of innovative progression will take place within organisations too.

It was Peter Drucker who said; "“Effective innovations start small.  They are not grandiose,” a sentiment that is counter to the often demanded 'immediate breakthrough innovation demands' that many companies crave.

Organisations  will be effected by their contextual environments, the competitor landscape, leadership, consumer trends - and the rise and fall of the waves will occur over a much shorter time horizon. But innovation will run in waves and start from small beginnings.

What's important when considering the active management of internal organisation innovation is to have some sense of awareness as to where the organisation is on the wave and when to take stock of lessons learnt, and when to turn on the taps at the beginning of the next wave. This is also why developing foresight and having a very clear understanding of where the risks and opportunities are at one point in time is so important in this regard.

The point is that effective innovation is not static, it is not immediate and needs to build from humble beginnings; not from correct answers, but curious questions.

In summary:

  1. Innovation is not a singular event - it is a collective series of events that build on each other and work up to a climatic, definable disruptive moment.
  2. Innovative cycles can be themed and can be individually seen as part of a themed-era.
  3. It is important to know what era you are in and where you are positioned on a cycle so that you can invest the right resources into the cycle at the right time.
  4. Cycles start from the bottom and work themselves up.
  5. Innovation requires awareness and a conscious effort to learn from past lessons. New waves of innovation carry the seeds of the previous wave.
  6. Organisational innovation cycles need to be aware of the broader innovation cycle in which it is located so as to ride the bigger wave on which all organisations find themselves.
  7. The key ingredients to leveraging your innovation cycle are humility, curiosity, tenacity, foresight, creativity, a learning mindset, patience and self awareness.

Innovation involves the art and science of being contextually aware and focusing on continual improvement over time. It is by its nature a risky activity because you are literally navigating uncharted territory. But by understanding that these journeys into the unknown progress in waves, you can better time your approach and know when it is a 'period of rebuild' or the crest of a long build-up of hard work.