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Top down bottom up – driving innovation in a complex business


There is a tendency to overcomplicate innovation and improvement.
Consultants especially like this because it gives them plenty of room to play with their tools and techniques and they can constantly reinvent what others before them have done, re-package it and sell it on as the next big thing.
But if you look to the basics you find some quite simple, learnable principles and thinking that remain constant over time and are independent of context because they are generic.
We all realise that the era of the lone inventor is pretty much over. Therefore we have to work through team or groups to generate innovation. These groups can be taught to work through problems in similar ways. That's not to say the problems they are addressing need to be the same but they way the work through them can be consistent.
Within this context if leaders, facilitators and the group members:
  • Have the motivation to engage. Which is not as difficult as it seems to answer, as the infamous 'What's in it for me?' question can be readily answered if its about making life simpler, more effective, more productive, engaging and fun.
  • Possess a clear understanding of how to engage to realise their best potential by learning some essential highly effective, readliy learnt, advanced problem solving thinking and skills.
  • Are provided with opportunities to get to work on solving the problems that get in their way of delivering value to customers and the business. You need people to think and act wisely and creatively to overcome complex challenges.
Organisations, teams and people are highly-integrated, networked and interconnected. Creating different results requires different actions. In turn these actions come from different understandings and ways of thinking about and through complex problems. This results in flexibility with rigour. The price of that simplicity is hard work, rigorous thinking and experience in application. That price only needs to be paid once: after that it's a question of passing on what works and molding it to suit different contexts.
Innovation and improvement are natural outcomes. Of course, strategic and team leaders need to know specifically what they can do to help. Again this generally boils down to some pretty simple stuff. Stuff which much current leadership development misses. In particular understanding that they create a context (climate) which either enables or hinders innovation and that the process for problem solving is separate form the problem itself and needs to be deliberatly managed as such.
If every group (or team) in a complex business is working in similar ways through problems bureaucracy can be reduced; they can create synergies and multiply their effects because they have a common language, understanding and 'strong reference frame' for handling such situations as they arise. Barriers dissolve and the business evolves into an agile, innovative and highly stimulating place to be. None of this is as hard or as expensive as many think. But it doesn require working on the fabric of the way people interact to solve problems and a focus on getting the foundations right.
Top down or bottom up - take your pick. But be sure to build on the right foundations or the most whizzo tool or techniques will fail - probably when you need it most.

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