I recently attended an evening lecture at LSE by former Nobel Laureate in Economics Professor Edmund Phelps. The hour-long lecture was entitled “Grassroots Innovation and the Spread of Flourishing”, and put forward innovation as a conduit not just to economic improvement and increase of GDP, but to prosperity and wellbeing at the societal level. Professor Phelps spoke of the perceptual issues that act as a barrier to identifying innovators – most notably the prototype of a fastidious visionary with minimal qualifications. He contrasted this with the reality that contemporary innovators must be at a highly educated level to get to the starting line, due to the current level of technological advancement in the world marketplace.
The James Dyson awards announced on BBC News provide an insight into such high level innovation. This year’s entries (with the winner being announced on 7 November) included projects as diverse as an automatic suturing tool for abdominal surgery, and a set of specialised tidal power energy production units that accommodates changes in direction of currents (you can view this in action here). These, as well as the other projects on show, demonstrate deep specialist and technical knowledge for competence; before innovation is even possible.
However, these highly impressive individual projects are usually characterised by smaller teams with a full focus on their product. The issue for those of us in a large professional services organisation is to figure out how to assimilate innovation at a larger organisational level.
Rick Freeman, Vice President and Director of Business Innovation at Capgemini Consulting, raises several points in a recent blog post that suggest how to effectively achieve innovative behaviour in such a setting. He speaks about the lack of concrete approaches to innovation in organisations, and the proliferation of an outcome-focused approach with no systems, technology, investment or resources allocated to an industrialised innovation process. With the caveat for pharmaceutical companies (he challenges them to find innovation processes outside the specific R&D for new product development), Rick puts forward a taxonomy of four operating models of innovation. You can read about the four models (Culture, Golden Thread, Innovation Hub and Innovation-as-a-Service) at the blog in more detail, but the salient point is the importance of industrialising innovation in an organisation, rather than only accepting senior level sentiment and lip-service.