Building Innovation

The more I study business in general, and innovation in particular, the more clear it is that we don’t do a very good job of taking time into account. This leads to a lot of problems – management focused on quarterly results at the expense of building a long-term success, innovations that spread quickly and then die, and the tendency to be catastrophicly surprised by events that seem wildly improbable if we only look over a short time scale. I think that we have to take time into account when we think about innovation (that’s why I made a category for it!). The reason for this is that every innovation has a life span – each new idea will eventually be replaced by something else (Schumpeter’s creative destruction at work), or run out of the resources or customers that it depends on. How can we take this into account?

Over the weekend Umair Haque posted a Builder’s Manifesto, and there are some good ideas in it. He argues that we no longer need ‘leaders’, but rather ‘builders’. Here’s the central part of his argument:

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. What leaders “lead” are yesterday’s organizations. But yesterday’s organizations — from carmakers, to investment banks, to the healthcare system, to the energy industry, to the Senate itself — are broken. Today’s biggest human challenge isn’t leading broken organizations slightly better. It’s building better organizations in the first place. It isn’t about leadership: it’s about “buildership”, or what I often refer to as Constructivism.

Leadership is the art of becoming, well, a leader. Constructivism, in contrast, is the art of becoming a builder — of new institutions. Like artistic Constructivism rejected “art for art’s sake,” so economic Constructivism rejects leadership for the organization’s sake — instead of for society’s.

Builders forge better building blocks to construct economies, polities, and societies. They’re the true prime movers, the fundamental causes of prosperity. They build the institutions that create new kinds of leaders — as well as managers, workers, and customers.

Haque builds his argument by contrasting a number of leaders against a number of builders, and concludes with 10 principles that builders can follow.

I think there are some useful ideas here for those of us trying to manage innovation. Builders take horizon 3 seriously, and as we’ve said before, that is an essential part of making an innovation strategy. So how might a builder approach innovation? Here are a few ideas:

  • Make sure that your business goal is a sustainable one – you want innovations that have a longer lifespan.
  • Manage by getting out of the way – your job is to get rid of obstacles, not tell people what to do.
  • Build a platform that encourages contributions from others – long-term innovations build participation, not monopoly.
  • Building a platform requires business model innovation – you can do better by finding a new way or organising things than you can by inventing the newest brightest widget.

I think that there is a lot to be said for Haque’s idea, and I’m sure I’ll return to it as my thinking about it deepens. In the meantime, I’m going to start thinking about how to build a community of sustainable innovators. What are you going to build?

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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3 thoughts on “Building Innovation

  1. Wonderful exposition here! I really like this, but particularly: “Manage by getting out of the way – your job is to get rid of obstacles, not tell people what to do.” This concept made me think of the leader as the sweeper in a curling match: [from Canadian Curling Association] “Sweeping is done for two reasons: to make the rock travel farther, and to make the rock travel straighter (curl less).”