by Claire Bull

Innovation is the single most important condition for identifying and transforming a crisis into an opportunity. However, I‘ve seen that there is great difficulty in defining and understanding the phenomenon of innovation and how it can inform practice.

Why? I suspect that despite support from upper management and willingness on the ground, discrepancies exist between the intent of a change and how innovation is actually used.

As a thought exercise, no one would agree to lower the bar, yet in practice, many organisations do so. We also do not consider the atrocious cost of the status quo, of inaction.

There 3 questions you need to ask yourself and the answer will be defined by your absorptive capacity.

  • How do we best engage individuals in the innovation process?

  • How will the individuals across various levels behave in response to the stimulus – will we be able to manage conflict & stress?

  • How will we get the various departments to relate to one another; are there barriers and catalysts for innovative behaviours in organisations?

Defining innovation through absorptive capacity

It is important to clearly define innovation and to distinguish it from related concepts such as creativity, entrepreneurship, adaptability, originality, productivity, and novelty. In the past, there has been a lack of clear differentiation between the creativity and the innovation constructs, leading to a misunderstanding regarding the antecedents and outcomes of creativity and organisational innovation.

The ability of an organisation to acquire, assimilate, transform, and exploit external knowledge, is labelled as a firm’s ‘absorptive capacity’.

It is obvious that it is critical for the innovation process.

The innovation process is one of punishment – someone may lose their job because of my idea; I may lose my job if no one supports me.

I would go one further and say that failure should be an option for companies. Why?

Because risk is inherent in innovation.

Highly creative ideas often initially sound stupid. If employees fear ridicule for sharing outrageous ideas, they will not share such ideas. If employees believe that being part of a failed project will have professional consequences, they will avoid risk -- and hence innovation -- like the plague. In businesses where failure is not an option, employees will often stick with failing projects, investing ever more resources in hopes that the project will eventually succeed. When it does not, losses are greater and reputations are ruined. As a result, companies that reward failure often fail less than those that discourage it.

Incite and excite on a single level: Individual

I believe that the individual(s) who are innovation architects should be identified, protected and guided to challenge their assumptions about the core problems their customers face. Without constraining them, they also have to be stopped from jumping into action indiscriminately, ensuring they combine trial & error methods with the more analytical work of diagnosing the core problem.

Considerations have to be made upon the physical and social context, the skills and capabilities individuals have, as well as their internal motivations, whether those are conscious or subconscious.

As Innovation develops into the new norm, there will be new challenges faced by the organisation, the collective group and the individual. There may be product or process innovation, incremental or radical innovation.

Drover Foods in Ireland is a family run ready-to-eat MNC. It started as a purely processed sausage, factory. The daughter of the patriarch decided that it would be wise to diversify the company’s portfolio into vegetarian meals seeing the trend towards healthy eating. She met with great resistance from her father, the founder. The business was after all, not flailing, it was doing rather well. She eventually persuaded her father to give it go and it was a whopping success.

Not content, she also diversified into UK’s favourite food – curry! Needless to say, despite faced with a hearty dose of scepticism, she prevailed and the Drover Foods is doing very well regionally and constantly gives back to the community.

The big challenge we have is, can we have someone that innovates in the places that seem to constrain? Can we provide space for them to innovate?