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Emergent innovation: setting the scene

Emergent innovation: setting the scene
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Emergent innovation: setting the scene

Sometimes when we have an idea we say something along the lines of "a lightbulb just lit up inside of my head!"

That lightbulb has perhaps illuminated the solution to a sticky problem you've been mulling over or has given shape and color to a creative notion that was only lurking in the shadow of our minds previously. It shone upon some kind of innovation that was probably hiding in plain site, just waiting for us to realise that there are opportunities for innovation all around if only we can spot them.

Innovation, when we speak of it, is the game-changing product, service, or idea that's lurking around the bend. It's the stuff that makes fortunes, seemingly overnight. The people and organisations that harness innovation can truly change the world. However, innovation doesn't just happen overnight, and despite the numerous legends of individual geniuses, is mainly a team effort.

Our previous three articles were focused on deepening collaboration across the entire organisational hierarchy. Once this deeper collaboration is engrained into your teams' daily routine, the scene is set for innovation to emerge. This is called, un-shockingly, emergent innovation. Emergent innovation can be thought of as a special form of collaboration; one that is truly joyous to be a part of.

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There are other kinds of innovation as well, which are dictated or "directed" innovation. They look like what you'd expect: the boss brings people that they think are smart together and tells them to innovate. They might come up with something worth developing, but these efforts are largely seen to fail. We're going to focus on emergent innovation, as that is a more reliable venue for success.   

There has been a lot of fantastic research done on how innovation occurs, and an overlapping theme in the data is that the strongest, most profitable ideas are the results of this emergent innovation and come from organic pockets of individuals who are on the front-line of the business. From there the innovation has to move inward to the core of the business in order to be forged into a saleable product or service. There's much more to it of course, and we'll get deeper as we go, but for now, let's start broadly.

Get the vibe right

We have to be part of a healthy work environment if we want to reach a place where we're able to truly and deeply collaborate with our peers. While it is true that the environment at-large is outside of our direct control, there are many steps each of us can take to ensure that our colleagues are able to speak freely in our presence and feel as if their ideas are heard, encouraged, and questioned in good faith. Once people are getting along and having productive conversations, ideas can start to bubble up to the surface to be investigated. For these conversations to lead to anywhere concrete, we have to feel like we're able to make some decisions and take action for ourselves; autonomous!

Once we have made the decision to act on our ideas, we need to learn when it's the right time to engage in our autonomy and when we should turn towards getting done what others need us to do, or "control/compliance."

Autonomy and control each have their place! Research within Adaptavist shows that we are all comfortable with control/compliance some of the time. We don't mind being told what to do, or telling other people what to do... Sometimes.

Read the numbers

Analyzing our data it appears that we are fine with orientating ourselves towards control about 25% of the time. But for roughly 50% of the time, we orientate ourselves towards autonomy, as we need to if we are to become part of the social process that is emergent innovation. 

We cannot expect to create a process to unlock emergent innovation, because the process changes every time.  We cannot define in advance how or when to have a good idea. Being part of the excitement that is emergent innovation means choosing to think creatively, radically, to see our day to day work in a different light, so that even as we keep doing our jobs we can unlock value, as if from thin air, for free.

Does this sound like magic?

Well, it's not, but it does mean that we need to be brave enough to learn how to act of our own volition even as we head for an ill-defined and partially unknown goal. Clearly we need the support of those around us to do this, but we should (politely) hold them to account if they are not delivering what we need as well. There is still no way around it: if we want to be part of the exciting, fulfilling process that is emergent innovation we have to take responsibility for it ourselves.

Sit down, be humble

So how do those of us on the frontline even begin to innovate while handling our day-to-day work?

First of all, it's important that we recognize our own ideas. We're working with customers and hearing their concerns. If we're engaged with our customers as well as our colleagues, we're bound to start thinking of different ways to solve the various problems we encounter. Could it be that a solution we implement to meet a client's needs could stand on its own and serve a whole market?

Perhaps shifting our perspective on the things that we interact with routinely can lead to the idea. This comes along with developing an Agile Mindset, something we’ve certainly mentioned before.

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Once we've identified that there's a spark, it's tempting to get swept up in the excitement that is generated. Being a part of an emergent innovation can be described as exhilarating! It's a major contributor to job satisfaction and is something we hope that everyone gets to experience at least once in their lives. However, it is critical that we engage humility and acknowledge that even if we think this idea can change the world, we might be wrong. Challenge your assumptions and ask yourself and your co-innovators deep questions about every aspect of the innovation.

It's crucial to hold the customers' perspective during the ideation phase as well. What are their pains and what are their potential gains? Mapping these out on a Value Proposition Canvas has proven invaluable to Adaptavist's efforts in this space, primarily because it clarifies to anyone interested what is expected and required to implement this idea.

That clarity is going to be what takes an idea into the deeper parts of the business, but in order to begin that journey, you're going to need to find the right people to carry the idea into the core of the organisation.

Engage with a broker in a safe space

In order for innovation to take root, it has to organically make its way through the social networks that exist inside the company. The surest way to have that message circulate and take hold is for a “broker” to get involved. Brokers are people who connect across business silos, often with relationships built through shared work experience (and informal means as well!)

It's these individuals with the social capital necessary to land an idea closer to the center of the company. The broker can move a potential innovation to a place in the business where prototyping can be done; still a step away from the center but further in. Here's where the idea should go through even further refinement and adjustment. This is the "adaptive" space. We'll dive deeper into the adaptive space and how to grow and support it in the next edition of this series.

Think about your fellow workers. We suspect you already know who the brokers are. Maybe you're one of them. They're good people to keep in touch with if for no other reason than to get a "gut-check" of an idea. 

Anyone can innovate

A lot of research points to people having deeply ingrained motivation to work towards something personally meaningful that only can be created as part of a group. All of us want to be part of something bigger than ourselves that creates something new. That's a part of our human nature. It's our argument with history.

If we can operate in an environment that supports ours and our colleagues' autonomy, our motivation to act in the best interest of our organisation grows. We start to have ideas that make our work and customers lives better. People start to see the world in a new way, and this makes information flow easier.

We want our work to be a place where we can thrive, and that means innovating, not just operating. Contribute to an environment where innovation can happen. Playing with ideas (and truly listening to others' ideas) can become a massively enjoyable part of your work, and that next idea might be the one that changes the world.

Are you finding that ideas are plenty but venues to promote them are sparse? Would you like to discuss how your team can create an environment where emergent innovation can flourish? Are you successfully innovating and want to share your story with us? Let us know in the form down below:

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