Innovation Layers that Shear Against Each Other

by Paul Hobcraft

Innovation Layers that Shear Against Each Other There is so much built in tension, bias, barriers, mindsets, mental model conflicts, and all types of friction seemingly going on around us, you must sometimes think all our organizations can only be totally dysfunctional.

Has anyone not come across some or all of these?

Dysfunctional leadership symptoms and those typical warning signs of dictatorial leadership, no feedback on performance, personal agendas, more ‘political’ compensation than ‘performance related ones, inefficient use of resources, empire-building practices, unequal workload distribution, too much management, fragmented organization efforts. There is simply just too much talk, ineffective  and incessant meetings, a lack of collaboration across departments, ‘selective’ low productivity when you are working way beyond the normal, feeling in a constant crisis mode, watching a morale deterioration take place before your eyes, the,  backstabbing, starving projects of essential resources and finally, working in highly stressful workplaces.

Innovation Layers that Shear Against Each Other

The Scream by Edvard Munch

A pretty depressing list isn’t it? I’m sure you can think of a few more besides.

When you are up against some or all of these how can you feel trust, belief and be innovative? Partly from what I’ve been reading and from my own perspective let me offer some thoughts to reduce some of these unhealthy tensions organizations seem to have, that certainly act as real constraints for innovation to really take hold.

How can you break into this and design something different?

Recently a number of comments have triggered my thinking about this whole area of blockages that seem to not allow innovation to take hold in organizations the way it needs too. The writing of Scott Anthony recently under the article “Negotiating Innovation & Control”, the book “Relentless Innovation” and stream of thought provoking views of Jeffrey Phillips wanting us to challenge the “Business as Usual” approach. Then we have Gary Hamel in his new book “What Matters Now”  where he shares his agenda for building organizations, that can flourish in a world of diminished hopes, relentless change and ferocious competition. This is not a book about doing better. This is an impassioned plea to reinvent management as we know it—to rethink the fundamental assumptions we have about capitalism, organizational life, and the meaning of work.

Each has a theme running through them in different ways, the need to achieve continuous innovation needs a massive change in mindset and in managing the ‘heart’ of the organization. This heart is unhealthy and will need new values, new processes and new belief systems. You add in calls from John Hagel, John Seely Brown, Ranjay Gulati  and countless others, we are in need of a more radical agenda to rethink management, not just for innovation management.

The legend of the Gordian Knot

Some time back Chuck Frey, well known in innovation circles, wrote about the Gordian Knot. “For people the world over, the Gordian Knot represents the difficult, the intractable and often the insolvable problem. Today’s systemic business problems are the modern-day equivalent of this seemingly impossible challenge.

According to Greek mythology,  the huge, ball-like Turkish knot with no ends exposed was impossible to untie. An oracle had predicted that the first person to do so would become the ruler of all Asia. Thousands of people had tried, without success, to unlock its complex riddles. Alexander of Macedonia, son of King Philip II of Macedon, solved this puzzle simply and very creatively – by cutting it in half with his sword, exposing its ends and making it possible to untie. Alexander the Great went on to conquer all of Asia, just as the oracle predicted”.

Innovation Layers that Shear Against Each Other So how can we cut the intractable knot inside organizations and survive?

We all face increasing uncertainties and are having our trust battered. We are seemingly not rising to the challenges that seem to be growing in complexity in global and organizational context.Innovation has a vital role to play but it must be ‘treated’ differently.

Where do we start? Firstly we need to revisit the work on “adaptive enterprises and systems”. We need to find ways to deal with unpredictable, discontinuous change and make this more predictable for us to manage.

We lack often a real coherence of purpose; we lurch from one opportunity to another, from one quarter of results into another with often no consistency in our activities. Performance has been taken over by opportunistic behaviours.  Innovation often takes the real brunt of this.

Our intended strategy, moves suddenly into a deliberate strategy, and then somehow this gets abandoned or unrealized and slowly we replace this with a emergent strategy that is rapidly become our realized strategy that we present to the world, as a response to ‘factors outside our control’ for our often indifferent performance. Who really talks about the EXACT results achieved from innovation for instance? All we here is just a general reference to it, to cloak innovation often in the ineffectiveness that lies within.

For innovation and many things going on within organizations they often lack a real coherence, they ‘signal’ inconsistent behaviours, especially within the organization. These bad signals simply build up all the tensions and dysfunctional aspects that middle order management and the organization in general has to mop up and cope with.

How can innovation thrive in this sort of chaotic mess? No wonder it never takes hold, it just has nothing ‘permanent’ to attach too and grow. Management needs a radical overhaul so innovation can be the vehicle for what is articulated but often poorly delivered on a consistent basis.

Context & Coordination needs designing in purposefully.

Again, where do we start? We start with ‘disconnect’ that organizations often have. The understanding of the underlying purpose of the organization beyond just making money and keeping the shareholders happy does need a deeper primary function, it needs rearticulating. Some organizations do a reasonable job of this but many simply don’t.

So what is our primary innovation function?

We need to restate our primary function and purpose far more in its societal contribution. We need to express the bounds as a governing set of principles that are known, reinforced and measured against. We then need to set about building in a consistent way, the capabilities that are able to produce the outcomes. We need to build in the accountabilities into the roles that reflect that innovation, effectiveness and efficiency that is needed so they can be managed equally side by side. We need to teach the ability to be adaptable and recognize the differences so as to actively manage the ‘creative’ conflicts and tensions that clearly occur in all organizations.

This article is part one of two blogs on built-in tensions within organizations.

image credit: dailyart.com, whmsoft.net
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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.

No comments

  1. Paul – What a thoughtful article. I love the way you synthesize the work of some many writers and then use that as a platform for your own contribution. I hope your post/article enjoys a wide readership. (I will try to do my part to spread the word.) – Rick

  2. A nice analysis Paul.

    The matters you list as needing to be done address each of the symptoms of the problem but do we not need to first address the fundamental cause of the problem and change the way everybody in an organisation thinks from “parts” thinking to integrative thinking?

  3. I like your article & the “societal” purpose at the end; however, i’m puzzled at your conclusion. We always want to put governance, accountability & measurement into the answer. Isn’t this part of the problem?

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