Do You Really Need an Innovation Strategy?

Without strategy you have no direction, without innovation you lose relevance - Greg Satell

Whilst strategy and innovation both play crucial roles in the success of an organisation, they are not applied equally.

A good strategy helps an organisation set clear goals, define priorities and make informed decisions, while innovation enables a company to think differently, create new products, services, and business models to meet changing customer needs.

Innovation is an essential, but frequently underfed, component of strategy as it helps organisations to achieve their strategic objectives by generating new ideas, products, or processes that can differentiate them.

If you Google ‘Do You Need An Innovation Strategy?’ you’ll get just under one billion articles affirming “Yes, you absolutely do“.

Gary Pisano has argued that companies without an innovation strategy won’t be able to make trade-off decisions and choose all the elements of the innovation system. He maintains this is the responsibility of senior leadership.

However, I’m unconvinced and I’ll attempt to explain why.

Over the past ten years I’ve been acutely aware of balancing the need to tie innovation to corporate strategy, while not being so closely bound to it that innovation becomes only incremental improvements to the status quo. I’ll acknowledge that in the past some attempts at Bromford Lab have been too haphazard and disconnected from strategy, and also at times too constrained by it.

However, having an ‘innovation strategy’ risks setting efforts apart from the organisation itself. It risks encouraging initiativitis – with more and more random innovation efforts becoming disconnected from core purpose. Innovation hardly ever works when introduced from the side. Never mind culture: strategy eats innovation for breakfast.

Also – who sets the innovation strategy? Senior leaders? An innovation team? Again that potentially acts as a constraint to bottom up opportunities that emerge from the people closest to the opportunities. Senior leaders are often not the drivers of innovation that they think they are.

The answer I think could be to develop a corporate plan that – in itself – is an enabler of innovation. Embedding the requirement for innovation in your core purpose.

The new Bromford Strategy was developed through the use of ‘adaptive spaces’ – a series of workshops and conversations with an intention to harness a degree of ambiguity within it, as it will require all colleagues to contribute to a collective shift in thinking and doing over a four year period.

Research by Mary Uhl-Bien found that successful innovations emerge from informal/entrepreneurial networks but must be supported and developed in temporary ‘adaptive spaces’ if they are to fulfil their potential for transforming formal bureaucratic organisations.

Adaptive spaces are a way of introducing more transformational thinking into organisations. They are best used for making key strategic shifts where organisations require a new mindset rather than just incremental improvements.

Adaptive spaces occur in the interface between the operational and entrepreneurial system by embracing, rather than stifling, the dynamic tension between the two systems. They do this by organising internal and external networks to spark the emergence of novel ideas and then fostering idea development and sharing.

This leads to idea diffusion across the organisation to gain formal endorsement from the operational system. In this way, novel ideas are more readily introduced, more openly shared and more effectively integrated into formal processes.

So imagine if your strategy actually facilitated the emergence of adaptive spaces for new thinking rather than forming a specific roadmap that can be easily followed almost without thinking.

Imagine if your strategy had the requisite amount of uncertainty so that it outlined some broad strategic shifts that must be made – but didn’t spell out how they would be achieved.

Essentially, we’ve tried to create a strategy that is built for exploration rather than ticking off KPI’s. A strategy that cannot be achieved without innovation.

So, do you really need an innovation strategy?

I say no.

You need a strategy that sets out a challenge and invites everyone to ask questions and go on a journey of discovery.

You need a strategy that is founded upon principles of good innovation management, rather than innovation simply existing within the confines of a room full of beanbags and sticky notes.

As Steve Robbins has said, more than one strategy is actually no strategy at all. You only need one strategy, everything else is tactics.

So you need a really good strategy that enables the right innovation tactics to achieve the end goal.

Will it work? Ask me in four years time.

Related: Is the 15-Minute City a Bad Idea?