Recently I have enjoyed reading Peter J. Denning’s thoughts around innovation. He is Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Cebrowski Institure for information innovation at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
He discusses adoption, team practices, ubiquity, networks, language actions, the practice of innovation and other related topics. All are stimulating and worth finding the time to read but one caught my eye and I’ve gone back to it at least four, maybe five times. It intrigues me. It is entitled “The idea idea” written in early 2011 and asks the question “What if practices rather than ideas are the main source of innovation?”
I think we all agree “ideas pervade our professional work” and as Professor Denning points out “we borrow them, we apply them, we solve problems with them, we create new ones, and we try to foster more of them in our teams”. We do put a disproportionately greater emphasis on ideas yet as he points out, all these great ideas and the energy applied to them we still end up with really poor adoption rates, he suggests our success rate in business are around 4%.
All of this ‘idea’ energy seems to be wasting so much time, resources and money. He puts this so well “we are idea rich, selection baffled and adoption poor.”
The whole thrust of the article is perhaps that innovation is not ideas generated and I agree so much on this, but practices adopted. We need to spend more efforts on the skills and adoption of new practices and as he suggests “as the framework for new practices.”
The two schools of thought
He suggests the two schools; if you believe ideas are the key to innovation you will put your efforts into generating, analysing, selecting and publicizing ideas where the emphasis is on creativity, imagination, borrowing and recombination. The other is adopting new practice as the key to innovation- the efforts go into selling others the value of doing new practice by building credibility it works, teaching people how to do it, furnishing tools to help them and providing the guidance and leadership to overcome obstacles and resistances.
I’m sitting more and more in the second school, I enjoy the first school of believing in ideas but I feel, well actually place my focus on the second school- the process of new practice. This is why and where I earn my living (or try too) or increasingly so. Also this is why I just keep going back to this article, it resonates so much for me, a confirmation of a confirmation.
He puts both cases well- outlining that “the diffusion model and the pipeline model share this common feature that they both put idea generation as their source. They differ on how ideas move from source to market.”
The case of practices he starts by rightly stating “an idea that changes no one’s behaviour is only an invention, not an innovation”. He talks briefly of “the prime innovation pattern” as part of a new theory where innovators goal is to bring about changes of practice to change that “sense of disharmony” detected and they go through different activities to achieve this change. This gets to the point that the practice suddenly becomes adopted, someone starts doing something different, often in the early stages as improvisation, to overcome something blocking them from doing the job they need to meet. When it is seen as superior others imitate it, the practice spreads.
Where I feel Absorptive Capacity fit here
Many people have offered views on this adoption and promoting its practice as it is aiding making things better for others. I very much wish more people would look a little harder at Absorptive Capacity for many reasons, some of those I’ve previously outlined. The more we access, anchor and diffuse capability the greater chance for innovation. This links into Absorptive Capacity and for instance Zahra and Georges work on acquisition, assimilation, transformation and exploitation as the four phases of Absorptive Capacity.
Professor Denning rightly suggests it is finding the right balance between cultivating ideas and cultivating (new) practices. Maybe we should all question our balance on this?
He offers three thoughts
The iceberg theory- the visible top part (about 10%) is analogous to the set of ideas, the invisible submerged part (about 90%) relates to the practices of innovation. The practices keep the ideas afloat.
He suggests you beware of the idea idea- pursuing ideas for the sake of them- and you keep deferring adoption until the idea is perfected. He suggests you need to put 10% of your efforts into explaining the value and principles of your ideas and 90% into fostering the new practices you advocate and it is the work of adoption is from the beginning.
Lastly it is how and what you learn from experiment and trial practices. It is then later how you distil the knowledge gained into the pursuit of the emerging ideas, these emerging new practices. This makes for less value placed on ‘crude’ ideas, more on ‘refined’ ones that do raise the chance of market adoption significantly. You just keep filtering and improving, experimenting and exploring not just pushing ‘ideas’ simply through the innovation process. You seek to raise the adoption rates of not just translating the idea but the very new practices that get you to that success.
So, it is the connections between ideas and adoption, the idea adopted into practice, and it is the focus on the “dispersing” and “adapting” that accelerates innovation, simply not just the ‘idea’ alone worked through in ‘established’ ways.
What are your thoughts?
Paul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation, an advisory business that stimulates sound innovation practice, researches topics that relate to innovation for the future, as well as aligning innovation to organizations core capabilities.