The Intersection of Human and Organizational Innovation Capabilities

Guest post by Ralph Ohr

One of my main interests is looking at the intersection of organizational and human  capabilities. Business is accomplished through people, thus individual mindset, behavior and capabilities determine organizational performance. When it comes to innovation, a recently published research paper, titled ‘The Bias Against Creativity’ serves as a good example. The findings indicate a paradox that people desire but reject creativity. The authors explain this paradox  by proposing that people can hold a bias against creativity that is not necessarily overt, and which is activated when people experience a motivation to reduce uncertainty. They further conclude:

If people hold an implicit bias against creativity, then we cannot assume that organizations, institutions or even scientific endeavors will desire and recognize creative ideas even when they explicitly state they want them. This is because when journals extol creative research, universities train scientists to promote creative solutions, R&D companies commend the development of new products, pharmaceutical companies praise creative medical breakthroughs, they may do so in ways that promote uncertainty by requiring gate-keepers to identify the single “best” and most “accurate” idea thereby creating an unacknowledged aversion to creativity.

This suggests two main points:

  • People being involved in innovation are required to truly embrace creativity and novelty. They prove it through their ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Further, they are not inhibited by an unconscious bias against novel ideas, while claiming to drive innovation forward. Biased people, particularly in case of decision makers and executives, may seriously harm innovation activities.
  • In order drive innovation, people need to be able to manage tensions. The paradox, that people are often curious about novel ideas and leaving the status quo, while at the same time being pulled back by their fear of uncertainty and risk, reflects .

Innovation occurs along a continuum from maintaining and improving the already existing (incremental innovation) to entering novel regime in terms of technology, meaning or business model (radical innovation). Both ends of the continuum require particular capabilities and human characteristics in order to get accomplished properly. As innovation activities are often embedded in a portfolio approach across this continuum, innovation management depends on integrating and balancing opposite requirements.

As Tim Kastelle points out, we need to learn and use integrative thinking to tackle these kinds of tensions. Integrative thinking is about creating new models that contain elements of individual models, but are superior to each. I think this can also be applied to personal orientations and mindsets on the human level. In the following I’d like to share some psychological concepts, describing opposite orientations and being relevant for innovation. Everyone has a natural tendency between these poles – and is therefore predestined for corresponding innovation tasks. By means of integrative thinking, we can learn to consciously move to our weaker pole. This may help us to become more flexible, particularly if we intend to develop entire innovation portfolios.

Cognitive orientation: Analytical thinking vs. Intuitive thinking

According to Roger Martin, analytical thinking is great for exploitation within the existing stage, i.e. improving core business through incremental innovation. Intuitive thinking is indicated for leaving the existing stage by exploring unknown terrains. Analytical thinkers focus almost exclusively on generating reliability – the ability to produce a consistent, replicable outcome.  In contrast, intuitive thinkers tend to focus on validity – the production of a desired outcome, whether or not it is consistent or replicable. This makes analytical thinkers more appropriate for incremental innovation, while intuitive thinkers tend to be more suited for radical innovation. In most cases we can’t analyze the way to growth.

Balancing analytical thinking and intuitive thinking enables to both exploit existing business and create new opportunities. That’s what Roger Martin defines as Design Thinking.

Creative orientation: Searchers vs. Finders

Galenson et al. (2003) found that modern artists can be divided into two groups:

Experimental innovators are driven by imprecise goals, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The imprecision of their goals means that they rarely feel they have succeeded, so their careers are often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. They paint the same subject many times, gradually changing its treatment by trial and error. They consider procedure as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover in the course of making.

In contrast, conceptual innovators have intended to communicate specific ideas or emotions. Their goals for a particular work can be stated precisely in advance. They often make detailed preparatory plans for their paint, and execute their final works systematically. Conceptual innovations appear suddenly, as a new idea produces a result quite different not only from other artists’ work, but also from the artist’s own previous work. Conceptual innovations are consequently often embodied in individual breakthrough paintings. The conceptual artist’s certainty about his goals, and confidence that he has achieved them, often leaves him free to pursue new and different goals.

These findings widely hold true for business and innovation, too. Peter Sims emphasizes the need for an experimental and emergent approach in order to manage uncertainty and risk for innovation in his great book Little Bets.

On the other hand, small steps are often in danger to range within existing regimes. In order to aim at the next breakthrough innovation, a vision or scenarios of future conditions need to be defined. It’s essential for breakthroughs ‘to skate where the puck is going to be, rather than where it is.’ This vision is to be approached gradually through experimental steps – as small as possible and as big as necessary – in order to remain adaptable. I think, only by integrating searching and finding, the innovation continuum can be properly covered.

Temporal orientation: Monochronic vs. Polychronic

Individuals conceive of time quite differently. The most common understanding of time in the western world is “clock time”. Ian Mc Carthy et al. (2010) focus in their research on the differentiation between monochronic and polychronic individuals and how they are suited for particular business tasks (you can even find a link to a self-test at the bottom of the post). They describe monochronics as viewing time as a unified and linear phenomenon. Monochronics prefer to work on individual tasks with given deadlines in a serial fashion. In contrast, polychronics tend to view time as a heterogeneous and malleable phenomenon. They like to work on many things simultaneously, and are much less concerned about missing deadlines. Mc Carthy further suggests that a monochronic orientation suits better to linear innovation frameworks, involving relatively discrete, sequential and determnistic stages. Such frameworks are primarily employed for incremental innovation activities. Whereas a polychronic orientation tends to correspond to highly interconnected environments where more nonlinear and iterative frameworks are required. Those frameworks are suited to deal with unknown outocmes and radical innovation.

A balanced temporal orientation enables people to accomplish tasks from both sides of the innovation spectrum. Moreover, most innovation processes require a higher polychronic orientation in the (messy) ideation stage, while being based on more linear and monochronic execution afterwards.


There is an intersection between individual and organizational innovation capabilities. Human capabilities might not be a sufficient condition for organizational performance, but at least a necessary condition. In order to make innovation activities a success, we have to make sure that novel and creative ideas become truly accepted and acted upon by the people in charge. This requires having the right people in place, being equipped with beneficial capabilities and orientations to tackle the tasks across an innovation portfolio. This suggests hiring and allocating appropriate ‘specialists’ for incremental as well as radical innovation activities, respectively. The overall portfolio, however, needs to get managed by people who are capable of integrating opposing mindsets, orientations and approaches, therefore being able to connect to different individual characters.

Dr. Ralph-Christian Ohr has extensive experience in product/innovation management for international technology-based companies. His particular interest is targeted at the intersection of organizational and human innovation capabilities. You can follow him on Twitter @Ralph_Ohr.

Experienced innovation management and corporate development professional. Consulting on organizational and personal capabilities for high innovation performance. Integrative thinker. T-shaped. Author of the Integrative Innovation blog. Follow him on Twitter @ralph_ohr.

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

12 thoughts on “The Intersection of Human and Organizational Innovation Capabilities

  1. Great article Ralph-Christian – innovation is always a balance between different approaches, not always easy to accomplish 😉

    Myself I have embraced into the ballet & opera world, as Dresden is housing an amazing opera house right next door from where I live. Since late 2010 I have gone to around 80 performances, opera, ballet, orchestra, and interviews – always finding inspiration out of it (writing on my blog). Happy to share if of interest.

    Cheers, Ralf

  2. you will have to begin addressing collective consciousness soon .. individual awareness exists within the matrix of the collective, and it’s very rare that one can escape from that.

  3. Nice piece Ralph-Christian,

    I posted about that first link rejecting novel ideas before, and linked to Tim’s past post about the need to create new value networks in order for the innovations to have potential to more readily be absorbed

    Which reminds me of John Hagel and John Seely Brown say that organisations need to insitutionalise innovation
    or maybe it was this one

  4. @RalfLippold
    Thanks for your comment, Ralf – I’m happy you find the post useful. I think, music, art and cultural activities are indeed very good ways to get some balance in work and life. I myself try to follow this advice as often as I can. Here is an interesting article I recently came across. It describes what innovators and entrpreneurs may learn for jazz musicians – quite interesting and maybe of interest:
    BTW: The Dresden Opera is very impressive – I visited your city some years ago.

    Thanks for your response. I agree with you that the collective is gaining importance. Nevertheless, I think allocating people in accordance with their orientations – be it for individual or collective work, may unlock a big potential.

    @Paul Hobcraft
    I’m glad you like the post, Paul. Happy to see that it has worked out quite well to attempt to link human to organizational capabilities.

    @John Tropea
    Thanks for your kind feedback and the “Snippet”. I already noticed your post on resistance to creativity: I think you highlight a very important point here:
    “The field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identify how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity.”
    Tim’s post nails it – connecting ideas to people, rather than creating ideas, is the tough part.
    Thanks for the further links – John Hagel and John Seely Brown are very insightful and well worth watching.

    @Fernanda Ibarra
    Thank you, Fernanda! You can find the link to the self test at the bottom of this post:

  5. Hi Ralph,
    Great post and enjoyed the read. I liked the concepts of analytical and intuitive thinking as it applies to innovation (more so than the experimental and conceptual innovators)

    Coming from an analytics background but with an intuitive nature, I agree that there is a differene between pure analytical and intuitive thinkers. However, to me the fascinating excercise has always been how far I can push the analytical envelope to validate & support my intuitive reasoning and conclusions.

    As you and Tim point out, one of the key is for the organization to buy into your creative ideas/solutions irrespective of whether it is incremental or radical. And in most cases, going to the C-level with “I think…”, “I feel…”, “My gut says…” etc. will be a waste of time. One has to show pretty clearly that their thoughts (however fanciful it might be) is rooted in a strong foundation. This is where a dose of analytics can be of great help.

    Again, lots of great points you make.


  6. Thanks for your comment, Ned.

    I think you raise an important point here: the interplay between analytical and intuitive approach. As for innovation it’s basically impossible to “prove” a success of something which is ‘new to the world’ based on deduction from existing knowledge. That’s why experimentation gets important in order to validate ideas and gain data. As for decision making in general, we need to be careful when and to which extent to follow our intuition. Here is some good advice:

    Cheers, Ralph

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