The Core Challenge in Managing Innovation

A consistent point of controversy is whether or not innovation can be managed. If you think of innovation only as generating new, novel ideas, then it is very difficult to see how this could be actively managed (although there are in fact things we can do to encourage and improve creative thinking, so even here there is some scope for managing). On the other hand, if you view innovation as a process that includes steps such as generating, selecting, executing and diffusing ideas, then it is a bit easier to see how it might be managed.

Part of the problem here is how we define management. If we view it only as control, then it is hard to manage innovation because control will stifle the creativity needed at the front end of the process. However, if we view the main job of managers as enabling, or removing obstacles, then managing innovation starts to make more sense.

I ran across a quote today from the performance artist Marina Abramovi? that helps illustrate the issue. She is talking about how working in a studio can inhibit creativity by encouraging artists to follow a formula:

You understand the kind of work tha twill have success with your audience and you start making it again and again, and you lose yourself. The worst part is that you don’t surprise yourself with your work, you don’t get new ideas, or take risks, because of the possibility of failure. But failure is an incredibly important part of the work. Life itself is what’s important, not studio space.

So this is the problem: to create novel ideas, we have to be working at the edge – out where failure is a distinct possibility, out where the artists are. However, within organisations, unlike artists once we discover something new, we also have to figure out a way to make it again and again.

Managing the tension between these two acts – creation and re-creation – is the core challenge in managing innovation.

It’s so important that the people that write about innovation keep coming up with new ways to state the challenge. James March talks about the need to be good at both exploration and exploitation. Roger Martin reframes this as the need to be good at both reliability (producing consistent results) and validity (producing novel outcomes the fulfil important needs). John Hagel, John Seeley Brown and Lang Davison contrast the creative activities that take place at the edge with the re-creative activities that go on in the core of an organisation.

To innovate we have to discover new things. This requires creativity, experimentation, risk, failure, and novelty. At the same time, to innovate we have to be able to consistently re-create the things that we have discovered. This requires discipline, the elimination of variance, and efficiency.

Michael Tushman calls organisations that can both of these things ambidextrous:

“The Ambidextrous Organization” describes how mature companies can pursue breakthrough growth through a two-pronged effort in which they separate their new, exploratory units from their traditional, exploitive ones while maintaining tight links across units at the senior executive level

Those are the skills we need to be building if we are going to successfully manage an innovation process.