The Innovation Mosaic: Building Bridges Between the Many Perspectives on Innovation
I have been a student of innovation for more years now than I care to count. One of the things that has always made innovation so enjoyable to me is the fact that every business discipline seems to believe they “own” innovation, a premise from which they have devised their particular flavor of innovation — one that in each case mirrors their unique perspectives on business. I would like to take us on a tour of these different perspectives and see if perhaps we can build a bridge — or really… a series of bridges — between them all so that ultimately we can have a more comprehensive mosaic of innovation practice that will help us to maximize our appreciation of the space.
We begin with Business Management. The lens through which this profession — the “MBA crowd” if you will — sees the world is generally one of how to build a sustainable competitive advantage, something that can come from any corner of the business. This view is often focused on achieving excellence in operational execution — finding a particular business model that works and milking for it for everything its worth. As such, the mantra is typically along the lines of…understand your strengths and your weaknesses (your internal realities), understand your opportunities and your threats (your external realities); understand the balance of five forces impacting your particular industry at a given time; and then from these, stake your competitive strategy and go after your piece of the pie.
There are pros and cons that arise from this perspective. The cons largely stem from holding onto an old-school version of this, which is firmly entrenched in the “how we’ve always done it” camp. This view sees the external world as something out of our control and seeks stasis. That model no longer works. The pros therefore stem from adopting a new-school version of this, which understands the need to constantly renew and reinvent our business into something different from what it has been in the past. This new-school view accepts the idea that we can be a part of creating the future, and so endeavors to do so through various forms of market leadership.
The new-school world of Business Management has made great contributions to the innovation thought pool, including such powerful frameworks as innovation-driven growth strategies, business model innovation, the business model canvas, creative go-to-market strategies, and more. It has also given birth to outstanding innovation methods such as outcome-driven innovation (jobs-to-be-done theory) and discovery-driven innovation. Certainly, innovation practice would not be where it is today without these new-school contributions. Thank you, Business Management.
The lens through which the entrepreneurial mind sees the world is generally one of how to create something totally new and cool — sometimes something that will “unbundle”, or disrupt, an existing industry — that will allow them to make history and potentially change the world. It is an ambitious and often audacious worldview. Arising from this lens, the mantra is often one of trying to figure out a “problem worth solving” (one with the potential for lots of scale); making a product that “people want to buy”; building / selling / learning very quickly; and scaling up the business to as large as one can as fast as one can (during which the business may or may not be profitable).
This world, too, has made its contributions — the startup enterprise, Eric Ries’ lean startup model, the minimal viable product (MVP), and — very importantly — a massive ecosystem of startup communities around the world all supporting and rooting for one another. This has reached such a fever pitch in some places that having “startup founder” status is on par with other forms of celebrity status, or as I like to say, today’s startup founder is yesterday’s rock star.
Certainly there is no doubt that much of our understanding — both in startups and in large corporations — have been, and continue to be, greatly influenced and colored by these contributions from the entrepreneurial world. Since most of these have arisen over the past 20 years, I eagerly look forward to seeing what contributions come from this corner of the innovation universe over the next 20 years. Thank you, Entrepreneurialism.
Finance & Accounting
The lens through which the Finance profession sees the world is generally one of how to invest capital in the most efficient manner possible to generate business growth, and thus maximize the return on their investment. As a new school of thought has taken hold here too, particularly through the influence of Silicon Valley and the tech sector, a model has emerged that recognizes the need to invest organically for today, and to potentially invest inorganically to capture the next wave of growth for tomorrow. This is particularly true when there is the acceptance of the fact that tomorrow’s value propositions may very well not come from within the four walls of our existing enterprise, mired as it may be in the current way of doing things. We owe much of this awakening to Clayton Christensen opening the eyes of business to the growing threat of disruption, even if the means by which disruption is happening today does not always follow the particular path Christensen originally set forth.
Thus, this new school of Finance thought has made key contributions to the innovation world, including such vehicles as venture capital (without which the entrepreneurial world would not be where it is today), corporate venturing (the outreach of large corporations to invest in bold new business models from the outside as a way of remaining relevant to a future that is yet to unfold), business incubators, and business accelerator programs. Thank you, Finance.
Similarly, the world of Accounting, usually a rearward-looking profession, and a sibling of the Finance profession, has given us the practice of Management Accounting — the forward-looking forecasting of revenues, costs, and profits associated with new business models and their particular value propositions and go-to-market strategies. New business ventures would be unable to have a reliable starting point — nor corporations a means for comparing competing opportunities — were it not for the practice of Management Accounting. So a thank you also to the Accounting profession.
The lens through which the Design profession sees the world is generally one of how to deconstruct challenges and opportunities into deeper levels of human need and attack them at these deeper levels so as to deliver substantially better value and experiences. Thus the mantra is, more so than anywhere else, “know thy customer!” As such, Design is the one discipline that knows how to effectively drive down to customers’ outcome needs and, more importantly, their motivations, so that business challenges can then be reframed into new opportunities that stem from a more deeply-understood problem statement — one that sets us up to deliver new value at a deeper level of human need.
The discipline’s contributions are very well known… human-centric design and design thinking, together with many powerful design methods like personas, empathy maps, customer experience journey maps, and probably a hundred or more creativity hacks, all used to study and better understand needs and solutions. Furthermore, human-centric design has shed a strong light on the anthropological aspects of innovation, with user research methods like ethnography and contextual inquiry, all of which hang on one central theme, namely that of empathy for the customer and their needs. Without these contributions, innovation would never have achieved some of the world’s most important products and services that we have today. Certainly, the contribution of Design has made a world of difference in the caliber of the innovations we have today. Thank you, Design!
The lens through which the Marketing profession sees the world is generally one of how to best understand our customers and our markets, with their current and evolving needs, and the deficiencies of current offerings toward resolving those needs — a practice generally known as Strategic Marketing. The mantra tends to be one of let’s go figure out (at times in great detail) what’s going on in certain markets and what those markets’ strongest unmet wants and needs are. There is also the focus on testing out new value propositions with would-be customers to see if the data suggests there might be adequate demand for those propositions. And, of course, there is the practice of testing out new branding concepts in the hunt for those that will work best for a particular goal.
In the never-ending pursuit of mastering its game, Strategic Marketing is constantly exploring new ways of trying to debunk customers, as customers fundamentally lie to us whenever we ask them anything, their stated behaviors rarely, if ever, matching their real behaviors. Thus new forms of market research are constantly being tried out, including many new forms of technology-enabled research.
Marketing’s contributions to the practice of innovation have therefore included such gifts as insights development (a generic, broad-reaching concept which encompasses such things as voice-of-the-customer), qualitative market research, quantitative market research, brand research, branding, brand innovation (leveraging existing brands for new offerings in new-to-company markets), futuring, scenario planning, stress testing, and more. Very often these represent an important part of validating new innovation concepts and of de-risking certain innovation efforts, at least in those situations where reliable insights can be generated, with is often enough to matter. And it is often enough to make for a $40B global research industry. So, a warm “thank you” to Marketing.
Engineering / Science / Technology
The lens through which the Engineering, Science, and Technology professions see the world is generally one of how to bring new value to markets through new technological capabilities, whether that results from inventing new technologies or inventing new ways of combining existing technologies — both powerful sources of innovation and competitive advantage. The mantra is generally one of chasing the next level of bleeding-edge new technology, and to invent cool new things with that technology. And along the way, to amass as many patents as possible so as to protect oneself from being emulated by others.
Admittedly, technology — real, serious, game-changing technology — is foundationally what has fueled all transformational innovations throughout the history of mankind (those that have changed how society functions), while more applied technological developments have been at the root of many breakthrough and disruptive innovations. At the same time, it is equally true that there have been many, many inventions created throughout history which have had no practical usefulness — then or now. Or, as I like to say, engineers sometimes like to solve problems that don’t exist (something I can say being an engineer by training). This is why Engineering, Science, and Technology are incredibly powerful and effective tools when properly guided by market needs, whether existing or emerging.
So, the contributions here include technology itself (the core of many new foundations of value), the practice of invention (creating useful things from technology), product development (the practical development of new products and services for consumption), and the whole world of intellectual property, an activity that some try to use alone as a measure of innovativeness (some of the world’s greatest innovators — companies like IBM and Samsung for example — rack up 5–8 thousand new utility patents each year). Certainly innovation would not be innovation were it not for the role that Engineering, Science, and Technology play. For this, we say “thank you”.
The lens through which the Human Resource profession sees the world is generally one of how do we create the right organizational environments to promote innovation and how do we effectively engage our people to produce new innovation. This is very important in any organization that hopes to have a productive innovation agenda. The right environments send the message that innovation is important, while the right reinforcements keep people engaged toward corporate innovation objectives.
The contributions of this profession include the practices of Management Innovation (how we organize and lead to maximize innovativeness), Workplace Innovation (how we engage and treat people to maximize their propensity for innovation), the so-called Culture of Innovation (creating the cultures and environments that nurture and support many types of innovation), and the so-called Human Workplace (an attempt to humanize the language and practices of business so as to make them feel human — something increasingly important to Millennials). All of these contributions have played a significant role in initiating and sustaining organized innovation in businesses. For these contributions, we say “thank you”, HR!
Finally, there is the formal profession of Innovation itself within organizations. The lens through which this profession sees the world is one of how we might drive both a top-down and bottom-up agenda of short-, medium-, and long-term innovation efforts in a sustained fashion across the business. It requires formal structures, roles, processes, funding, and so forth in order to achieve its aim over the long run.
Some of the key contributions from this profession are the Innovation Lab (focused places and environments where teams pursue experimentation for new innovation — to the world of business innovation what the R&D Lab is to the world of technology), X-Works teams (special teams tasked with developing breakthrough solutions), the Innovation Pipeline (an ongoing pipeline of innovation projects), Innovation Management (the practice of managing the pipeline and its outputs), and Innovation Engagement (the long list of mechanisms used to engage the organization in the pursuit of new ideas and turn people into intrapreneurs). Were it not for these key contributions, organized innovation from within businesses would not exist and many of the world’s most innovative companies would not be where they are today, as it is these formal innovation programs that have allowed them to achieve what they have in the short period of time they have (think of companies, for example, like Nike, Cisco, and P&G). Thus, we offer a final “thank you” to the formal profession of Innovation and its formal corporate innovation programs.
Building the Bridge
Weaving back together all of these individual perspectives, what we arrive at is a productive mosaic of innovation. We come to recognize that each of these perspectives on innovation — and their respective contributions to the practice of innovation — are valid and necessary for the world to produce the innovations that it does. The challenge, however, is that often organizations are lacking in their ability to build the necessary bridges between each of these professions and their views so as to create an effective holistic program of innovation. Thus, this is where businesses must strive for mastery and leadership. That happens by getting all these disciplines in the same room together, talking to one another, and working together with one another toward a common, shared set of goals and outcomes. Companies that succeed at doing this — at building these bridges between the differing perspectives on innovation — end up with some of the most effective and productive innovation engines in the world. They end up with a beautiful mosaic of innovation that allows them to become a market leader and a world changer.
I invite all organizations to join us on this journey of building bridges and creating beautiful mosaics.
Anthony Mills is the CEO of Legacy Innovation Group, an award-winning growth and innovation consulting firm working to help companies create a legacy of innovation the world will remember.
Anthony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.