Revisiting A Framework For Innovation

Generating new ideas is the easy bit.

Just over a year ago I started writing a post describing what a framework for innovation would look like for a small/medium non-profit organisation. You can read that original post here. It was borne out of our own early experiments with trying to make innovation a part of day to day activities.

Whilst the intent of our efforts was right, the execution felt wrong. The focus was put on training up select staff members to be innovative, rather than thinking about the broader process for innovation.

It might seem counter-intuitive to put constraints on something that is fundamentally a creative endeavour, but at the time I thought it was important to have a really clear path for how the seed of an idea eventually finds it way to the business plan as a fully fleshed out project.

With this in mind, I started to try and draft out an innovation framework. Sadly, I didn’t get much further than the initial post. In part because it generated some even larger questions about how this (or any) framework would slot into an existing organisation.

Where does innovation fit in the yearly business plan cycle?

Most of us work in financial years, April to March. Within this cycle we have a number of defined business projects to deliver. How does the innovation framework sit along side this?

It seems like either one can’t operate in a vacuum. They must have an awareness of each other. Especially so in a smaller organisation where any new activity is likely pulling on the same sets of people to advance it along.

How long does something stay in the framework for assessment? What criteria do we use to judge when it’s ready to be released or shelved?

Additionally, should anything be allowed on the business plan unless it’s been through sufficient scrutiny of the innovation framework? Unless we are 100% confident it’s fixing the problem we think it’s fixing, couldn’t everything benefit from some structured pretotyping/prototyping & experimentation?

Who’s in charge of innovation?

If your answer to this is ‘everyone’ then the real answer is probably ‘no one’. Who actually runs & manages the process of innovation and who decides which ideas are tested and which are put on hold? How much authority do they have?

Are those inside the organisation best placed to come up with ideas?

Do those inside the organisation have the best perspective on what our tenants/customers/citizens need? Do we have the unique monopoly on good ideas? Of course not.. user needs are ringing in my ears.

Having a method to understand who our ‘users’ are and what they need from us seems like a fundamental requirement in knowing if the things we’re cooking up are actually of any use or solve any problems.

Strategy vs Ideation

In a traditional sense, organisations craft an overarching strategy as a way to steer everyone towards a common purpose. It is normally increasingly prescriptive in that it’s broken down into ever more direct actions as it rolls down the org chart.

Innovation on the other hand is a much more freeform process of discovering purpose through experimentation and iteration.

How do you balance the two so that they are symbiotic?

What (I think) these questions hint at is that you can’t just redecorate a corner of your office, stick a ping pong table in and call it an innovation lab.

To have the most meaningful impact, these ideas and processes must be applied to the core of the organisation. Anything else may result in fancy looking but ineffectual tinkering at the fringes.

Established organisations and institutions have their own internal gravity that causes inertia. They are designed to do the ‘normal’ efficiently but often struggle with challenges that are ambiguous or fast moving. It’s why I think having some sort of mechanism for experimentation is vitally important, and why we need to figure out how to apply these principles in a meaningful way to the very centre of what we do.

As you can probably tell.. this is most definitely a work in progress. 🙂

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