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Is your company organised for innovation or elimination?


We are in the “Age of the Unthinkable”[1]  as author, Joshua Cooper Ramo, eloquently puts it. If you have been around for a while, your head should be nodding right about now in agreement; whether in considering the domino-effect of a global superpower’s recession, the future-altering technological progress made in the blink of an eye, or your own company’s challenging experiences in a hyper-competitive industry.


In the face of such a complex and turbulent environment, how does an organization sustain development? It is likely with the knowledge that Darwin’s theory applies not only to a living species, but to any thriving business as well. The name of the game is innovation, how have you been playing?


Organisational Forms


Only decades ago, the Goliaths in any market were those who had the biggest resources, meanest marketing/sales team, and most rigid of processes that have been tried and tested (and therefore must not be significantly altered) through their extensive years in the industry.


Today, new organisational forms tout the advantages of having the most flexible of structures. Speed and adaptability were initiated in restructuring “from formal programs and coordination rules to spontaneous interaction, from specialised departments and staff units to improvised processes and temporary project teams.”[2]  In theory, the fittest organisations were those that constantly reinvented themselves, redesigning their approach to challenges ad hoc. Anything that hinted at routines, protocols, and departmentalisation are seen as soon-to-be obsolete systems as we move from the industrial to the informational era. The ideal 21st century company, therefore, had to be completely fluid.


As with many things, however, these two models of uncompromising bureaucracy versus total boundary-less structures are the extremes of integrating innovation. And with polar ideas, you have no room for development when stuck at either end.




So, where does that leave your company in engaging the market strategically? It is a balance of the best features of both organisational forms. The traditional model which is built on routines, SOPs and stability works because it is the foundation of advancing efficiency and building core competencies. The primary concern which the fluid organisation model addresses is this traditional system’s ability to adapt to the current flux of change.


What management researchers Schreyögg and Sydow[3]  are proposing, is balancing the countervailing processes. What this means is that the modern high-performing company is one that has these optimising systems in place, but is fluid enough to review these processes on a more regular basis. The organisation should be consciously aware of the potential change requirements its operations face, and is thus better prepared to innovate because it anticipates it.


What this looks like in actual practice:


As an established company with a broader organisational structure, review your company’s book of SOPs (when was the last time you did?). The systems’ evolution, usage, resulting effects and critical issues must be evaluated in the context of the current demands of the company and the market.

For instance, say you are a clinical trial company, and currently have difficulty finding new clients. If the tried and tested way is to conduct clinical studies, the results of which you then make available for a certain fee through research networks, how has this been performing in recent months?

Will you be stubbornly sticking to this traditional process despite the discouraging results? Or be boundary-less and start something entirely new such as a medical writing company regardless of your past expertise in research, just to get new clients? Perhaps the better solution is to stick to your core competency in research, but be fluid enough to find another way way of reaching clients. Additional action points to your traditional approach could be meeting potential clients to commission you for a specific study (in a way, becoming their outsourced R&D arm), expand your team of researchers to include other scientific fields that are in demand, attend trade exhibitions, etc.


For younger companies that are more agile with fewer members (but are planning to expand with its growing success) now would be the opportune time to establish guidelines, especially for processes tied to your core competencies.


For both companies, keep an ear on the ground for best practices when it comes to structuring organisations within your industry. Consider how else you can improve the processes that drive innovation in your organisation.


Straddling both exploitation (making the most out of your current resources/systems/competencies) and exploration (flexibility to respond to market demands with new solutions) will prove to be a more complex, but considerably advantageous strategy.


Aside from taking this more radical shift in perspective, innovation can also come in every day practices. While a lot of studies in this field focus on the individual, team innovation (and consequently the larger team- the organisation) is also worth investing research on.[4] In a study by Vera and Crossan[5]  they looked at practices from improvisation theater where the actors came in without scripts, thinking on their feet to perform and entertain (one common form is what we know as stand up comedy). Using principles from this medium, the team identified 4 improv skills/conditions that affect team innovation positively:


1.  Expertise. Having a diverse range of expertise, both domain- and task-relevant, within a team encourages innovation because formulating alternatives is easier with different view points.

2.  Teamwork Quality. Expertise can only go so far unless it is communicated to other team members. Sharing, however, is founded first on the principles of trust, shared responsibility, and respect within the team.

3.  Context for effective improvisation. The organization itself must provide an environment conducive to experimentation. One that rewards calculated risks in the name of progress.

4.  Training. As with any skill, training can not be underestimated. Empower your people with the tools to become more innovative.


A company’s commitment to finding ways to innovate across the individual-, team- and organizational-level is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. After all, in this age of the unthinkable happening, our options are endless.

[1] Ramo, J.C. (2008). The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It. Little, Brown and Company.

[2] Schreyögg, G., & Sydow, J. (2010). Organizing for Fluidity? Dilemmas of New organizational Forms. Organization Science Vol. 21, No. 6, pp.1251-1262.

[3] Ibid.;

[4] Caldwell, D.F., C.A. O'Reilly (2003). The determinants of team-based innovation in organizations. Small Group Res 34, 497-517.

[5]  Vera, D. & Crossan, M. (2005). Improvisation and Innovative Performance in Teams. Organization Science Vol. 16 No. 3, 203-224.

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