Searching for Unicorns: The Innovation Matrix

Thanks to everyone that has made comments and suggestions on The Innovation Matrix Reloaded. I’ll continue to incorporate your thoughts and ideas as the concept evolves. With that in mind, today I’d like to ask for some help.

First, let’s take a look at the Innovation Matrix again – I’ve highlighted the two categories I want to talk about:

Organisations that are innovative without having any commitment to innovation are interesting. Who falls into these categories?

When I first started thinking about this, one example immediately came to mind. A few years ago John and I started a big research project looking at innovation networks in project-based firms. One of the companies with whom we’ve done a lot of work on this project is a big mining company. Early in our relationship with them we had a meeting with several of the knowledge-management people in their main office. When we asked them about innovation, their response was “we’re not innovative.”

We were a bit surprised by this, but if they said it, it must be true, right? But as our research progressed, we discovered something interesting. When we went out to visit their mines and started talking to people, we found out that they are generating and executing innovative ideas all the time. True, nearly all of them are incremental, but still, in practice, this firm is actually reasonably competent at executing ideas – despite the fact that their upper management thinks that they are non-innovative, and in fact provides basically no support of innovation at all.

This is the kind of firm that I was thinking of as Accidental Innovators.

There are a few other examples of organisations in this category. Jürgen Stäudtner commented yesterday that firms with a strong focus on meeting customer needs can also be Accidental Innovators. They might not be consciously trying to innovate, but in meeting needs, they end up generating new products and services. This is similar to a comment that Rohan Hine made on the first version of the matrix, when he said that firms that are just starting out might not have a formal innovation process in place, but that in the course of figuring out how to survive in the market they may generate and execute innovative ideas.

So I can think of a few examples of organisations that fit into this category in the matrix. I think that in most cases these types of organisations will be limited to executing incremental innovations. However, with some added commitment, they also have the potential to become very good at it. They already have some skill at executing ideas – and this is one of the most important factors in innovating.

But this leads to the help that I need from you:

Where are the Unicorns?

Unicorn Rampant

Are there organisations that you can think of that have no commitment to innovation, yet are excellent at generating and executing new ideas?

Here’s another way to think of it: what’s the biggest innovation you can think of that came from an organisation that you would normally not think of as being innovative?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If we can find some Unicorns, I might have to change the name of the category. On the other hand, being the first to actually find a mythical creature would be pretty cool…

(Photo from flickr/ranil under a Creative Commons License)

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

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

5 thoughts on “Searching for Unicorns: The Innovation Matrix

  1. I am meeting, a few years, back someone said that the only way for a project to succeed is to have a “mad man” on board who is persistent is seeking it through against all odds including against the prevalent corporate culture.
    That statement stuck with me for some reason. I have observed some pretty impressive efforts that were single-handedly built by a tenacious and committed individual. The trouble, of course, is that it is not sustainable; that person might eventually give up or move on to other things. Perhaps some unicorns are innovative practices that are embedded in the corporate culture but are instead exhibited by a few individuals in the organisation out of personal conviction or pure madness. These may or may not work in concert: a shadow innovation group of sorts.

  2. Tim,
    Another great post.

    Since your post on Matrix Reloaded :-), I have been thinking about innovation a bit more than I usually do and have to admit that I am struggling with a few concepts.

    For one, how much ‘incremental’ does it take for something to be labeled an incremental innovation vs a major innovation? I am struggling because ‘innovation’ can happen anywhere in the chain – product, process, packaging, marketing, distribution, consumption etc. So if I kept the exact same product but put a new cover on it, is that incremental enough? Or if I kept the same product and the packaging but found a new use for it, will that be incremental or major? Is incremental determined by the magnitude of change or the magnitude of consumption? These and many related questions are still circling in my head — and hopefully will resolve itself :-).

    You also make a good point on ‘Accidental Innovators’. Sometimes a firm is competent – but competent in only one thing and good at executing it. They might try to produce more and more of that same thing to sustain growth and in the process make “tweaks” here and there. The innovations are “accidental” because the focus is on growth and not innovation.

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment. Enjoyed the read.


  3. I’m tempted to agree with Marco. In the public service I can think of some very innovative things that have arisen because of individuals working almost against the organisations they are in. The unicorns are attracted by virgin possibilities but then get skittish when the organisation tries to pin them down (integrate).

  4. I’m pleased I wasn’t the only person to find the Unicorn section intriguing.
    In thinking about unicorns, I couldn’t get away from the NFP and Creative Sectors. Organisations for which the actual mechanics of building a business may often be secondary to an inherent desire to execute creative ideas – innovation competence. Bangarra Dance Theatre I would argue, have an inherent innovation commitment because of the nature of their work, rather than as an option. I guess the issue here is whether it’s tacit or deliberate? Either way; an example of an extremely successful and innovative organisation.
    Another topical example Maleny Credit Union, which is currently battling with the burden of increasing regulation despite prospering and profiting from delivering on its original charter to provide ethical socially and environmentally friendly financial services to its membership.
    I don’t know that this answered your question but it has had me thinking!

    PS. I wonder how much of your observations regarding mining companies is to do with operational excellence and managerial distance? There are some unique elements to mining which differentiate it as an industry, as well as some really unique businesses. Thinking – scale, location, cost control, safety and engaged employees.

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