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To Master The Practice Of Innovation, Learn The New 3 R’s

In a gentler era gone by, our learning was made up of the 3 R’s: reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. In our current era of continuous disruption, we need a new 3 R’s, consisting of the ability, in turn, to reimagine, redesign and reorganize. These are essential proficiencies if we are to master the practice of innovation and achieve desired, transformational outcomes.

First, reimagination. Innovation always begins with new ideas. And it is the quality of those ideas that in turn shapes the vector of our innovation efforts. Albert Einstein famously observed that, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  This

resonates with a famous Zen Buddhist observation that while experts have many opinions, beginner’s have none, which is why everything starts with “beginner’s mind.” We value expertise and competence, but they can also be a powerful set of cognitive blinders that limit our ability to imagine. 

I’ve worked in the innovation field for four decades and am frequently struck by the limited attention given to the creative imagination within an overall innovation agenda – what some might call the “fuzzy front end.”  Perhaps this is understandable. The central casting manager often sees creativity as something subversive to an ordered world. One person described creatives in his organization as “the kind of people who can overspend on an unlimited budget.” Little tolerance is shown for the fundamentally disorderly, non-linear, often inefficient nature of creative work. “Good” management often finds itself in opposition to the needs of the creative process. Metrics, evidence-based approaches to decision-making and objective standards of performance can all be adversaries to the imagination, which is fueled instead by intuition about possibilities. Premature judgement will surely kill new ideas in their cradle.

The uncomfortable reality about new ideas is that they often subvert the status quo. An idea for a new venture may conflict with the core business by competing for resources, cannibalizing customer relationships, diluting brand equity and more. Those who are stewards of the status quo may have a vested interest in opposing change in order to protect their status, prerogatives and resources. The stage is thereby set for conflict.

Computer programmers are familiar with the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out.” Those who would innovate need to understand that anemic ideas in, leads to poor results out. Organizations that lack an ethos supportive of creativity and the room for imagination to flower will likely have a stunted innovation process. Ideas are the fuel for innovation – the better the ideas, the more robust the outcome. Preserving the wellsprings of imagination – diversity of workforce, white space, resources, tolerance for a reasonable level of creative inefficiency – all contribute to the ability to reimagine.

Ideas are critical, but what is equally important is how they are applied. We may reimagine our way to new technologies and business models, but unless these are relevant to real people and their needs, we will have accomplished little. Hence the importance of redesign. A major contribution of the field of design thinking has been

to highlight the importance of behavioral science in understanding human needs and putting people at the center of the innovation process.  Intellectual capital from anthropology and its translation into the techniques of user scenarios and ethnographic “cool-hunting” have fueled this human-centered approach to innovation, which differs significantly from the “killer app” orientation of a central casting Silicon Valley startup or the industrial model of innovation with its fondness for objective innovation processes that often stifle rather than encourage creativity.

Finally, the ideas gained through an ability to reimagine that are in turn enriched by the empathy of redesign must be implemented through reorganization. We have now arrived at the point at which convergent thinking and judgement are needed to address issues of feasibility and implementation. Reorganization is a penny word for a 10-ton agenda. Back in the 1980’s management guru Michael Hammer coined the term “re-engineering the corporation” as a guide to organizational transformation. 

Elements of such an engineering mentality must lie at the heart of reorganizing. Assessment of feasibility, logic and analysis all come into play in figuring out how to accommodate a new, transformational agenda within the current state of an organization. How reorganization is negotiated to achieve transformation is fundamental to successful outcomes. Smashing iron rice bowls and realigning interests leads to disruption; it involves making a bet that this level of disruption will be worth it. The courage to make such bets and to reorganize comes from a blend of leadership, culture, sense of urgency, clarity about desired outcomes, competitive pressures and more. 

To sum up, transformational outcomes in this era of disruption requires the ability to reimagine with a wide aperture, redesign with deep empathy and then reorganize with insight and bravery.

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