the roots of innovation

Sam & I had great meetings with a couple of our key research partners yesterday. I mentioned one of the key points that Nick raised in my last post, but two blog posts that I’ve read this morning have reminded me of his second outstanding point. We were discussing their successful implementation of a Communities of Practice initiative, and we talked about a lot of the deep history of the program. It was implemented in 2005, but Nick told us about important things that had happened ten years before that which were essential to the success of the program. At the end, he told us that he viewed it like a tree – that the program has many different roots, which all contribute to the the growth and flowering now.


Then this morning I read a post by Jeffrey Phillips about the importance of preparation. He says that one of the common reasons for innovation failure is that people immediately start to work on generating ideas. Instead, he suggests that:

If you want to be successful in an innovation project, recognize that the preparation work is at least as important as the idea generation work, perhaps more so. Rather than rushing in to generate ideas, take the time to set the stage effectively, plan the work, engage the team and set clear goals and expectations.

Then I read a post by Sean Safford about a different topic – some of the causes and impacts of the current economic recession. He says:

I still see the logic of globalization and innovation as the bases on which to build. But we seem to have lost our way in the effort to build that base. I think that’s true in part because it’s not a quick solution: we are building a cathedral here — not a gold-rush village — and so you have to build a large, solid foundation. In other words, it is a strategy that must play out over decades. But we are in a rush.

In turn, all of this reminded me of a discussion that we had in one of my MBA classes last week. There we talked about how you can’t just turn on an innovation program on when you decide you need it – you have to have it in place and operational all the time. The reason for this is that when you need new ideas, they have to be grounded in what you already know, and what you do well. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be path-breaking or revolutionary – but they still need roots. Innovation is not something that you can just spontaneously begin, whether you’re a person, a firm, or a country. You have to think innovatively all the time. That way, when you really need a good idea fast, you’ll have skills and practices in place that you can draw on. Nick’s exactly right – innovation is like a tree. If you will need to innovate at some point in the future (and who won’t?), you better start thinking about tending to the roots right now.


Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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6 thoughts on “the roots of innovation

  1. Innovation is like a tree? …But EVERYTHING is like a tree, Tim:
    “The problem, as I see it, lies in the practice. Some analogies or borrowing are [spurious] and/or fallacious. My favourite example: an organisation is like a plant; it needs to be constantly ‘watered’ and ‘pruned’ by an experienced ‘gardener.’ Now, with sufficient lateral thinking, this analogy might be deemed correct, but it is also totally useless. (This, I suspect, is what you mean by facile analogies).”

  2. I know we’ve talked about this before Marco, and I agree that usually these types of analogies are utterly useless. However, in this case there are two points that I think are correct. The firstr is that there is no obvious direct connection between one particular root and one particular flower – it all makes up a complex system. The second is that it takes time to grow a tree, which is the issue that I was trying to get at here. And it is very true for innovation programs – you can’t just suddenly decide to instantly become innovative, it takes some work.

    So in those respect, I think it’s not a bad analogy…

  3. OK, I take your point. So let me spell out the essential aspects here (if I understood them correctly):
    1) an innovation system has no straightforward cause-effect relationships
    2) an innovation system imposes certain delays. These delays are “built-in” and cannot be eliminated
    Thus, we are advised to do some planning ahead.
    Unfortunately, because the innovation system is complex, we cannot guarantee how successful our actions will be.

    The same is true for tree. Tree planting works but not because we know everything about how roots end up being large ferns. We know it works because we experimented over (thousands of?) years. Planning, in this case, is predicated on collecting a large sample of planted trees and analysing their success via “proxy measures” of how early to plant seeds, how often to water, etc.

    The argument is that innovation systems are amenable to a similar analysis with similar outcomes (i.e. a more reliable set of proxy measures of success). Is this right?

  4. I suppose you could put it that way. I’m not sure that the two things have to map onto each directly. The main thing is that if you want a tree someplace, it’s pretty close to impossible to get one quickly (something I have to keep reminding Nancy of when we’re working in our yard!). The same with innovation. That’s all I am really trying to get at here.

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