The nature of innovation

Guest facilitator Sonja Blignaut reflects on the 5-day Innovation Sprint with agile42 in August 2017

14 August 2017

“Innovation is not so much about having ideas as it is about making connections” – Harold Jarche

"Yesterday during a break, I went for a walk in the bush around the venue. I came across a deer in the path, and I immediately thought that I had to bring my son with me next time, as he’d love to see it. But then I realised that if I came back here expecting to see the deer again we'd probably both be disappointed."

This story, shared by a participant of the 5-day agile42 Innovation Sprint I facilitated recently, captures the emergent and often ethereal nature of innovation. Innovation happens mostly by accident - it's about serendipitous encounters and connections. We can create conditions where the chance is greater for it to emerge, but we can't mandate, manage or create innovation.

How then do we go about creating containers where innovation is more likely to emerge? One learning from this workshop is the importance of how an event is framed (i.e. what we call it) as the framing creates a container within which the process unfolds, and it also creates expectations that can either be enabling or disabling.

InnovationFirstly, the expectation of this being an event that needed to lead to "innovation" introduced pressure and expectations that paradoxically may stifle more than enable innovation. Some of the participants voiced concerns about "not being particularly innovative" and many seemed to adopt a wait and see attitude about whether anything new will actually emerge. Many expressed the fear that we’ll only end up with "tweaks and fiddles" as opposed to "real, out of this world innovation" or that “ONE big idea”.

To counter this, one of the first exercises was a narrative meaning making process around innovation where the aim was to at least externalise and acknowledge problematic stories and meanings the group held around innovation so that we could work with them more intentionally. We did this by exploring the following questions:

  • What do “they” say about innovation? (They being the nebulous “other” that we often talk about, but never really know who “they” are)
  • We then broadened it to look at the context in which these things are said
  • Then we unpacked the impact of these meanings on the group

The group highlighted two emergent patterns from this exercise: one of pressure (innovate or die) and another of prejudice (only some people can innovate). Innovation was seen as “hard”, about that “ONE big idea” that had to be lucrative. It is risky – expensive if you fail. Innovation is fast and quick; it’s an imperative “innovate or die”. On the other hand it’s also a “buzz word”.

When asked to name this innovation narrative names like “we’re all confused” seemed to resonate.

This process a much more open container for the work and upon reflection later on in the week, many participants referred to this process as a key break-through moment.

Outside of the boxWe also challenged the cliché of innovation requiring us to "think outside the box". Often we don’t know what the box is (or if even exists), so how can we think outside it? We chose instead to reframe our process as "unfolding the box", which served to shift the perspective of the group from a focus on outcome to a focus on process and a stance of curiosity and enquiry.

agile42 has a strategic partnership with Prof. Dave Snowden, and we wanted to use this workshop to also gain deeper practical insight into the Cynefin framework and other related methods. We therefore “unfolded the agile42” box using multiple complexity based group activities such as…

  • Future backwards to understand the current reality (today), future dreams (patterns in heaven) and fears (patterns in hell) of the group as well as gain insight into the shared corporate memory (patterns in the timeline). Here the group discovered that even though they are distributed across many different countries and continents, there were golden threads that tied them together.
  • Cynefin contextualisation to surface sense-making patterns and biases.
  • Archetype extraction – prior to the workshop, we collected stories about current agile practices (best and worst) using Sensemaker. We used these to extract emergent archetypes, visualised by a cartoonist in the workshop.
  • We used appreciative interviews to surface and share success stories about client engagements as well as sales and marketing experiences. We then asked the ASHEN (Artifacts, Skills, Heuristics, Experience and Natural Talent) perspective questions and to surface key knowledge objects that exist in agile42.
  • We applied ABIDE (Attractor, Boundaries, Identity, Diversity & Environment) as perspective lenses to understand the market and “influencable” patterns.

These divergent (and often messy!) methods served to make patterns visible and keep the group from falling into their comfort zone of identifying problems and then trying to find solutions.

This was not an easy of comfortable process for the group. Many of the activities seemed disparate, each providing a different perspective or unfolding a different aspect of the box. There was no defined outcome, and no linear process where each activity built on another. Being complex methods, they were largely emergent and involved ambiguous instructions. Golden threads only became apparent on day 3, and some activities were “left hanging” and never really resolved.

As the majority of the people in the room are coaches, who are used to “being the experts” and the “ones who know”. The inherent uncertainty and ambiguity that such a divergent process brings challenged this identity and brought greater empathy for how their clients feel when they experience similar processes.

When we did finally converge on day 4, the majority of the group felt that the discomfort was worth the end result. Many felt that the value was as much as the experience of the uncertainty of the process, and the associated learnings than the eventual outcome (a portfolio of experiments and ideas that will be actioned in the next few months).

An interesting metaphor that emerged during the process is that innovation can be likened to a chef that combines existing ingredients into brand new recipes. Chefs don't create new ingredients, they combine what is already there in unique ways. The challenge for this group was to see themselves (e.g. skills & offerings) and their markets (attractors, boundaries etc) from multiple perspectives to potentially recombine existing capability to new market opportunities.

Read more about Sonja Blignaut and More Beyond at Artwork by James Durno.

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