THE INNOVATION NOTION
Is your company organised for innovation or
We are in the “Age of the Unthinkable”
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
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?
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
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.”
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
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
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
What this looks like in actual
•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,
•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
•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. In a study by Vera and Crossan
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:
Expertise. Having a diverse range of expertise, both domain- and
task-relevant, within a team encourages innovation because formulating alternatives is easier with different
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.
Context for effective improvisation. The organization itself must
provide an environment conducive to experimentation. One that rewards calculated risks in the name of
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.