Wednesday, 17 November 2010

When to innovate - when to follow

Part of the skill of being accountable for KM in an organisation is balancing creativity and innovation against developing and deploying best practice. Creativity in the wrong place is known as "reinventing the wheel" - wasting time and effort in recreating something which is already very well established. Following and improving established best practice at the wrong time is known as "reorganising the deck chairs on the Titanic" - making small improvements to a doomed system.

So how do we know when to be creative, and when to follow? I have tried to explore this question graphically, as I am a visual learner, and like to plot out idea as pictures.

In this picture, the orange curved areas represent "solution space" - space which represents a technology or a process or a product which "works". Note that the solution space is curved in the time dimension - contexts change, technologies change, markets change, competition changes, and the product or solution that works today, may not work tomorrow.

Let't think about a team trying to develop a project. This is represented by the yellow lines overlying the "old context" solution space. Initially (point a) the team goes through divergent thinking. They innovate - they create - they try many ideas until they find a solution that fits into the valid solution space. After that, they refine their product or process (point b), going through a learning process to find the best fit, the best product, or the best practice. A company which is good at innovation finds a solution quickly, getting from point a to point b as quickly and reliably as possible. A company which is good at developing and deploying best practice narrows down the options very fast from point c, converging rapidly on the most effective solution. From here on, there's no need for any more innovation, until one of two things happens.

Firstly, the solution space moves away from the solution (point c). Your process or product is obsolete, or outmoded, or no longer valid, and you have to find another solution in the new solution space.

Or, secondly, if you are smart, you see the new solution space coming. You say "what if ......". "What if we did X - we could capture a new and emerging market" - that's point d on the plot, when the new solution space emerges. That's where you can do some really creative stuff and capture a new market.

So where do you innovate? You innovate when you need to move into a new solution space - either because a new space appears, or because the old space is no longer tenable.

So where do you perfect and continuously improve? Where the solution fits comfortably in a static or stable context, then don't worry about innovation, worry about continuous improvement. But watch out for then the context changes, or a new context opens. Thats's when innovation is needed again

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