The Cult of Seven for Innovation

by Paul Hobcraft

The Cult of Seven for InnovationRecently I was going through my files and was amazed how the use of ‘seven’ came up to form some sort of magic ‘seven’ framework. I’m not sure if we can blame this all on the “seven wonders of the world” but ‘seven’ has some magic perhaps when it also comes to listing. Is it because our attention span can’t absorb more than seven things at a time? Okay, I can hear my wife say “Seven, you, huh!”

Let me give you a flavor of this use of ‘seven’:

  • Seven keys to designing your innovation
  • Seven success factors
  • Seven habits of effective people
  • Seven innovation myths
  • Seven kinds of consequences
  • Seven deadly sins of Roadmapping
  • Seven levels of sustainability
  • 3M’s seven pillars for innovation

The list could go on….and on. So why does seven seemingly loom so large for us?

My favorite seven was the McKinsey Seven S framework.

I loved that. I wrote my Innovation Masters dissertation using this for my research framework, based on Strategy, Structure, Systems, Skills, Staff, Shared Beliefs & Style. It simply worked. The premise of the model is that all seven factors are interdependent and attention has to be given to all of them, with each factors relevant importance changing over time and all are important for innovation, they connected innovation for me.

So what was behind the seven factors?

  1. Strategy: The set of actions that you start with and must maintain
  2. Structure: How people and tasks/ work are organized, the authority, and mechanisms
  3. Systems: The process and flows that link organization together
  4. Style: How managers behave, “the way things are done around here”, the ‘norms’ that are followed
  5. Staff: How people are developed currently and in the future to build their competences
  6. Skills: The dominant capabilities that exist (reside) within the organization
  7. Shared Beliefs or Super ordinate goals: The longer term vision and values that can shape the organizations beliefs and are widely shared as important and give that broader ‘sense of purpose’.

The Downsides on its Use

Its ‘analytical simplicity’ did limit its capacity to go sufficiently below the surface to understand all the complexities that make up culture or structure, to understand innovation. It group complex issues under general headings “Staff, Skills, Style, Systems etc.” which can mean very different things to different people, at different levels within the organization. It also offered a more internal perspective.

The Advantages of Using 7S

Although the seven factors are all interdependent, contradictions and tensions can make organizations somewhat more adaptive and by reviewing these 7 factors constantly may help make a quicker adjustment to meet the changing business circumstances. Knowing where to place the emphasis and how the factors all interrelate gives the model the power to manage these tensions. As an analytical tool it does help gauge where an organization “is” and in the case of innovation can highlight where it compares with other companies based on the same set of structured questions. This does enable a quick identification of the present innovation, for me established what conditions are or were in place, and indicated what needed to be given new or different priorities to improve the innovation culture.

The 7S framework’s Origins and Approach

The 7S framework first appeared in the “Art of Japanese Management” by Richard Pascale and Anthony Athos in 1981. At this time, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman were equally exploring what made a company excellent. The Seven S model was born at a series of meetings between these four authors in 1978. It went on to appear in Peters and Waterman’s book “In Search of Excellence” (1982) and then was taken up as a basic analytical tool by the global management-consulting firm of McKinsey and is referred to as the McKinsey’s 7S model.

Times change but these ‘classic’ frameworks seem to live on?

Recently I saw in Professor Chesbrough’s latest book the continued use (or reference) to Michael Porter’s Value Chain, and still seemingly dominate the mindset of many executive even today, yet it was created in 1985. He thankfully questions this. Do we still use this today? Equally Porters classic 5 Forces for Competitive Analysis seems so outdated also in today’s world. We really do need to rethink and conceptualize with frameworks more reflective of today. I do feel it is time we ‘consign’ many of these classics.

So it got me thinking, can I let go of my McKinsey Seven S. I mean it was thought of between four authors 33 years ago – wow! Time to freshen it up or simply move on and reflect more of the issues we are seemingly facing in this global, connected world.

So, My New Seven S is Born!

We are in a more connected world, we need to be more outwardly facing so my Seven S reflects this hopefully. It tackles the issues of the day perhaps? These are Sustainable, Systemic, Social, Scale, Scope, Salient and Synchronized.

So what lies behind these seven?

  1. Sustainable: Sustainability is the capacity to endure. From the innovation perspective sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of our well being to grow, to thrive, to provide return and has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.
  2. Systemic: This refers to something that is spread throughout, the whole system-wide innovation activity we do, affecting a group or system such as our organization, our network or the market or society as a whole.
  3. Social: the term “social” is used in many different senses and regarded still as a fuzzy concept meaning different things to different people. What it does have as a common thread is it refers to the need for interaction, recognizing the broader collective co-existence and the future way for inclusion, cohesion and collaboration.
  4. Scale: I’m dealing here more with the economics, the exploiting inside and outside we need to do so much more frequently to survive and thrive. Open Innovation is one example of this scale need, through pursuing openness to further ‘scale’. We seek to ‘gain scale’, we organize our structures and processes around the potential of scale to handle greater volume and gain utilization. Infrastructure is a classic candidate for ‘scaling’ to spread costs. We need to scale our knowledge and its accumulation for example. When we expand we need to ‘scale’. We exploit through scale; in global markets and across multiple connections and increasing networks to benefit from this.
  5. Scope: We often fail to define scope. Scope partly determines attraction. The more we ‘scope’ the greater the potential we have to offer to others to join with us. It allows for variety, it allows for exchange, it allows you to build based on your single source of an idea for example. Providing platforms for others to work from, opening up software allows for greater scope for others to contribute. The more attractive, the potential becomes for economies of scope to prevail. We gain potential synergies from the more we scope.
  6. Salient: Here it is referred to as its relevance, how it stands out, is a conspicuous part of the thinking. Something that is noticeable and significant to understand or focus upon. This is getting ‘it ‘into focus, as a new theory, as the outstanding feature or prominent in our (strategic) thinking, the salient message.
  7. Synchronized: To occur in parallel, at the same time, simultaneous. It is for instance, the bringing together of strategy, innovation, structures and systems so as to synchronize for effective and efficient performance, operating in unison allowing the coordination of events, the ‘being in sync’.

The Question Remains

Does my attempt to update the McKinsey Seven S with a more modern, outwardly looking group of seven make sense for evaluating innovation? Can it be used to diagnose organizations to see how innovative they are, how they compare?

It still has many contradictions and tensions within the seven factors but so does innovation itself. The seven chosen allow for more rapid and changing business conditions to validate relevance. Knowing where to place the emphasis and its use as an analytical tool it help gauge where an organization “is” on its innovation activity does also allow for comparison with others.

Any thoughts? I’m still believing in the magic of seven it seems.

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Paul HobcraftPaul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.