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Organizational Innovation is difficult. We think too much in terms of the past, projects and structures. And very often time is not on our side.
Organizational Innovation
There has been a lot of discussion about new ways of working. Very often the topic gets reduced to telework or arty-farty office design. But it should be about organizational innovation. Organisational Innovation is a form of organizational design with a focus on stretching organizations to not only superficially alter the  way they work. It’s mostly aimed at developing new capabilities that help organizations to thrive and survive in a VUCA-world. So its final purpose is to create a sustainable advantage.
But organizations have a hard time changing. And organizational innovation seems to be difficult to implement and even more difficult to maintain. And here is why.

Thinking about the Past is Easier

It’s simply difficult to imagine a future identity. It’s hard for people, and it’s even harder for a collective like an organization. The future is difficult to grasp because it does not exist. The past is documented, but can make us complacent or conservative. “We have always done it like this” or “There is no alternative” are expressions that show the difficulty we all have to imagine ourselves in a future state. Thinking about the future might even induce fear.
We can look at tendencies to try to make the future more tangible. In fact we should scan the environment for disruptions, because it helps to integrate a vision on the future in our current organizational decisions. Having a bright and fluid vision about the future helps to become agile and fearless. Here’s an example: R/GA has developed future vision to gather and share new ideas on the future. Go and take a look.

Instead of thinking about the past, we should think about the future. A bright and fluid vision about our future helps to become agile and fearless.

Thinking in Projects is Easier

Organizational Innovation can never stop, because the context changes continuously. That’s why organisational innovation should never be a project with a defined end. It’s a process of continuous adaptation. Organizations are like living entities that go through rapid evolution. It’s difficult to put a start date and certainly impossible to put an end date on it. So why bother?
But we live in a world where timings and deliverables are important. So I suggest to monitor organizational change by looking at incrementality. The idea behind this is that small steps create value. We can measure small steps and their impact. And we can also correct small steps. So organizational innovation is not about creating a big bang. It’s about taking two steps forward, and sometimes one step back.
The thing is that thinking in incrementals forces you to think about creating value instead of about being in time, budget, or scope. It also enables us not to fix targets that are too far away, not to fix directions we are not sure of and not to fixate a future vision that should change anyway.

Instead of thinking in projects, we need to think in incrementality. It helps to focus on value and to get rid of fixed ideas.

Thinking in Structures is Easier

When people think of organizations, they see boxes and lines. They think of structure. But Organisational Innovation is not (only) about structure. Structure is the last thing to consider in Organisational Innovation. Organisational Innovation is about creating context. Organizational Innovators think of organizations in terms of the external and internal context. The external context is that busy, bad world that threatens and invites at the same time. The internal context is the context an organisation can influence:

  1. its relationships with partners, employees, customers, governments and other stakeholders, … Ecosystems are not structures.
  2. its choices of technology, territory, talent, operation model, value chain, processes, … the tangible hardware of the organization.
  3. its culture, purpose, leadership, … the software of the organization.

But the structural thinking is strong. And in itself it’s not wrong to think in structures when thinking about organizations. But, we need to realise that a structure does not solve much. If anything, it gives people a sense of orientation within an organization. It might nudge people towards desired behaviour. But alas, very often the lines and the boxes are limiting the minds of people.
I have always wondered why people get so boxed in and say things like “it’s not in my job description“, or “I’m not responsible“, or “I am not allowed to work on that“. People adapt to structures and structures are as effective as the people working in them. So instead of working on structures it’s beter to think about capabilities like collaboration, leadership, time-to-market. Organizational Innovation is about building capabilities. And collaboration is probably one of the most important capabilities for the future. Structures are too often a matter of coerced collaboration.

Instead of thinking in terms of Structures, we need to think of fluid capabilities, collaboration being one of the most important ones.

Organizational Innovation needs a Mindset.

When organizations get praise for their innovative approach, we should be sceptic about the sustainability of the innovation. Like every change, innovation requires attention, energy. There is no such thing as a stable design. Organizational Innovation requires constant attention. So one of the reasons why it fails, apart from the difficulties to think about the futures, incremental value and capabilities, is that we fail to invest enough time. Every system that is not supported and provided with energy, falls apart, derails or yields undesired results.
Therefore organizational innovation should be a habit. Like dental Hygiene. And it’s a matter of more people than we can imagine. And when we drown in daily problems, the shit of yesterday and the operational concerns, we cannot find the time to innovate.

Organizational Innovation is a matter of mindset, it’s more a habit than a task.


Thank you for reading this article. Please don’t hesitate to comment on it. If you like it, thanks for sharing it with your network.
Here are some other blogs on organizational innovation and design.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

One Comment

  • Dale hudson, psyd says:

    Organizational innovation, creativity, resistance, and structured thinking is hindered or surpressed when the culture promotes fear! Fear of making a mistake, fear of taking initiative, fear of moving outside the boundaries of your work role (if that role has been clearly defined).
    In the absence of fear, when employees feel safe their natural reaction is trust and cooperation.
    Trust and cooperation means innovation and creativity are not confined to a single individual but the freedom for creativity and innovation lies with everyone. And isn’t that the kind of organization we all want to work for?

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