For a long time I’ve wondered if we don’t pay far too much attention to the obvious aspects of innovation – brainstorming, ideas, trends, etc – and pay far too little attention to the connective activities and culture that moves ideas through an integrated workflow. It’s easy to focus on and celebrate activities and definitive results. A team can hold a brainstorming session and measure the number of ideas, for example. These events are often what we talk about, even celebrate, when we talk about innovation but they aren’t the most critical components for innovation. It’s more difficult to build the connective tissue between these activities and deliverables and the next activity or action. When we celebrate the visible, discrete activities like idea generation, we place emphasis on that activity and raise the consciousness of the culture to embrace ideas and tangible outcomes. When we fail to focus on the culture, processes and connective tissue that sustains an idea or an innovation process, we denigrate the components that are ultimately just as valuable, and frequently harder to develop.
Strong and Weak forces
I’d like to use a model of the atom as an analogy for the importance of components and connectivity. The concept of the atom is relatively well-known to many people. I think we often picture it in much the same way that we think of the solar system – a central core made up of protons and neutrons, circled in progressive orbits by electrons. This has been the central theory of the atom for years, and even elementary school children can tell you what a proton is, and its purpose and charge, or what the electrons do. What they often don’t know, and don’t recognize or celebrate, is the important and often misunderstood forces that keep the components bound together. After all, if the forces that hold protons and neutrons together in the center of the atom, and the forces that retain electrons in their shells didn’t work, atoms wouldn’t form, and without atoms, no larger building block of life would exist.
You see, we celebrate the understandable, tangible forms of the atom – the proton, neutron and electron – but we don’t understand what may be more important: the forces that bind them together and connect them in ways that sustain them and make them useful.
There are four fundamental forces at work in nature: gravity, electomagnetism, the strong force and the weak force, and at least two of them are vital for the structure of the atom. It’s the strong force that binds protons and neutrons together, a force that is far stronger than gravity. Fortunately the force acts over a very small distance, otherwise it would collapse everything to the center of the atom. Similarly the electrons are bound to the nucleus by electromagnetism and their various valence shells. These forces are less powerful than the forces that bind the neutrons and protons together, but equally as important. The ability to gain or lose electrons means that atoms can combine to create new complex compounds, sodium can combine with chlorine to make salt. Both the strong interactive force and the electromagnetic force are vital to the structure, function and composition of the atom, but are less understood and less celebrated than the tangible components. The same is true for innovation. Good connections, strong connective tissue, a defined innovation process or workflow is more important than any specific step or output.
Celebrate and emphasize the weak forces
When we innovate, everyone wants to know when we’ll generate ideas, because that is a fun, but also tangible activity that leads to measurable outcomes. What few people want to focus on is the connectivity and process, the “weak forces” that bind the innovation process together. Many, many times you’ll see teams reach a peak “high” generating ideas and rapidly dissipate when they don’t know what to do next, or even how to define what to do next. It’s these weak forces, connective tissue, underlying processes, workflows or next steps that matter, as much, if not in many cases, more than the celebrated activities. Just as a proton is relatively useless without its neutrons and electrons, held together by the binding forces, so too are ideas relatively useless without the defined connective forces and processes to accelerate them toward commercialization.
What’s an even greater issue, however, is how much resistance these innovation “weak forces” confront. They face resistance from “business as usual” processes and structures, from people uncomfortable with risk and uncertainty, from decision making metrics and frameworks that aren’t suitable for use in innovation (like ROI) and many other competing factors. Cultures that sustain innovation over long periods of time have strong connective forces that bind activities and processes together and overcome resistance, while most firms lack the connective tissue or fail to constantly strengthen the connective tissues and processes. The common refrain from many executives is that they have plenty of ideas. That’s often correct, but they fail to realize that it’s not an issue of the number of ideas, but an issue of how those ideas get translated from a nascent idea into a viable product or service. That work is done primarily through these weak forces and defined processes.
Another factor that good innovators understand is the value of “weak” signals. Innovation is based on gathering and understanding trends and weak signals that indicate emerging needs or emerging markets. These weak signals are often overlooked or ignored by firms that will only listen to a “sure thing”. Innovators understand that once a signal is predictable and validated, everyone else has registered the signal and begun to decrypt it. Good innovators gather weak signals and attempt to understand what those weak signals may be telling them, and they act on the messages within those weak signals. It’s often too late to respond to clean, clear signals, but almost never too early to start gathering and interpreting weak signals.
Good innovation is based on understanding what the “weak” signals – messages that other firms are ignoring or overlooking – are telling you about future market needs, and constructing enough connective tissue or “weak forces” that will manage the space between innovation activities and deliverables to create an innovation workflow that allows to you accelerate ideas from nascent, vague ideas into polished products and services. There is great strength in these “weak” concepts, and while they are rarely celebrated they do the hard work of good innovation.
image credit: bulb concept image from bigstock
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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose. Follow him @ovoinnovation