Four blockers and strategies to innovation

In our experience working across complex systems to generate new ideas for action, there are 4 big blockers faced by leaders in organisations and sector-wide challenges. These blockers are not trivial and each require a deliberate strategy to address them.  

Block 1: High degree of uncomfortableness to deal with ambiguity and not knowing the answer

We see time and time again when organisations are faced with a problem that has either sprung upon them, or there is a systemic issue that simply not being addressed with current strategies, there is a desire to quickly define the scope and potential solution so that action can be taken. There is a tendency to carve up complex issues and allocate them across stakeholders, whether it’s within an organisation, or across multiple organisations. Adding to this is a tendency to preserve the right to solve these issues with an elite few. This diffuses the true nature of the problem, and reduces the likelihood of a break through solution.  The avoidance of defining a problem as complex means that the starting point for solving complex issues is flawed.

What is a strategy that can address this? In the very early stages of seeking innovations, we think about the FRAME, we go about identifying the nature of the problem at hand, and one useful model we use is the Stacey Model[1]. The questions to ask such as: Who needs to be involved in this challenge & to what extent is there agreement about the solution? What certainty have we go that we know what to do? In some instances we can proceed confidently, and thus make action and progress. Increasingly the recognition is that the problem is in fact complex, and work is needed to bring together a variety of people, and to work deliberately through a process to identify a solution. And in complex challenges ‘probe- act-analyse’ is the approach which is to take a design thinking approach.


Block 2: Bias to analyse and recommend rather than to act

The risk aversion of many in government and large institutions, drives a failure to act. This builds on the first block to innovation, which is a strong desire to have certainty, then to be faced with uncertainty, and therefore action only proceeds some falsely created sense of certainty, which means action is very slow as people seek ways to gain certainty before acting. It’s a vicious cycle given in complex issues you need to act to learn, to reach certainty, versus not acting means you cannot hope to uncover a good solution. We hear from frustrated senior people and change agents asking for more than white papers and analysis of problems, they want actionable work.

What is a strategy that can address this? Complex problems need a strategy of probing, experimentation and testing to learn, to inform large scale change is a necessary anecdote to inaction. The process of staging very deliberate activities that bring a wide network of people together, to work creatively, is what we do when we CATALYSE challenges. It involves an experienced design trained facilitator who can engender people to work together and move from exploring issues creatively through to actionable possible steps to solving the problem. It is more than a series of sticky notes and ideas clustered on walls, it’s a focus on driving action to learn, which means that these CATALYSE processes drive at pace thinking and creation to move a problem forward, to learn about what can be done.

BLOCK 3: Scepticism and lack of confidence in standard processes to deal with complex issues

The real problems facing governments and societies around the world, need to be wrestled with optimism and intentionality if they are to be addressed and differences to be made. And in some sectors and problems there are people who have been working and trying to make change that they are cynical and don’t have much belief that any real change can happen. This level of optimism and intentionality is often missing when dealing with complex issues because the art of possibility with intention has not been present.  The art of possibility is about framing the potential to tackle the problems not from problems but from opportunities. The intentionality is how we go about the art of the possible - methods and processes that are disciplined and flexible that are not deterministic but facilitate emergent solutions.

What is a strategy to address this? In our experience it is about joining people up in a deliberate process that is multiple staged, and with a clear goal or outcome in mind. In our innovation: catalysed model we have distinct phases that give permission to be divergent and highly convergent. It is about embracing people where they are at, and then challenging them to become innovators. A good innovation methodology will give space to let people grow, as well as push expectations that its hard work, and with commitment, result in identification of actions that are collectively owned and supported. 

BLOCK 4: Leaderships skills in working collaboratively and creatively

It is difficult for leaders within organisations and cross organisations in complex issues to understand that they may not have the necessary fitness or skills to solve the problems at hand. What we mean by this is the art of design dialogues, and a design attitude that behaves in participatory ways and knows how to elicit the wisdom in the room. The ability to collaborate is even more pronounced today as organisations, sectors and systems come together to embrace real challenges, and we need to be more sophisticated, more capable to draw out the best thinking and ideas, that generate the best innovations to make impact.

What is a strategy that can address this? Engaging in deliberate skill development within an applied problem is a simple yet effective way for leaders and participants in an innovation process. These skill builders, that we inject in our innovation processes include: building a growth mindset; techniques to generate high quality ideas; art of prototyping conceptual solutions; addressing bias in solving problems; innovation models for understanding the necessary questions to answer. Importantly this development is progressive and iterative. And it should be done over and over again throughout a program of innovation. In our Innovation: catalysed methodology we use every event and activity with our innovation network to infuse teaching modules and exercises for participants to learn. If we can build better thinkers through our innovation practices, then more organisations will be equipped with the thinkers to solve our greatest challenges.

[1] Reference: Complexity and Group Processes: A Radically Social Understanding of Individuals By Ralph D. Stacey