Dr. Bettina Von Stamm
November 21, 2016

ARTICLE: Innovating vs. Operating?

Is innovation on the agenda of your organisation, perhaps it is one of your organisation’s core values? 

Screenshot 2016-11-21 21.21.55.png

If not, perhaps it should be!  How else are you going to create a future for your organisation?  And you would be in good company: according to KPMG’s 2016 CEO survey 77 precent said that they consider it to be critical to include innovation in their strategy.

Are you keeping an eye on costs?  Do you seek to improve efficiencies? Are you striving to achieve operational excellence?  You will probably answer “yes” to all of those too - and just as well... 

You may ask, so what?  Is there a problem with wanting both innovation and operational excellence?  I think so.  What is your answer when I ask you: are you happy with your cost cutting exercises and efficiencies drives? You are probably doing quite well, most organisations have had years of experience with this and have hence become quite expert at cutting cost and improving efficiencies.  

What if I ask you, are you satisfied with your organisation’s innovation performance?  Well, if the
aforementioned research by KPMG[1] is to be believed, the answer is more likely than not “no”.  85% of respondents were concerned whether their organisation would be able to stay on top of what’s next in services/products, ie keep the output from the innovation pipeline flowing.

 Why does staying innovative seem to be rather difficult? I would like to go further and suggest that achieving both operational and innovation excellence, over time, is indeed a tough challenge, even a paradox.  Do you consider it to be a paradox? Many organisations don’t.  Let me explain a little why I believe that indeed it IS a paradox, and one that senior leaders need to learn how to embrace (better).

Of course, combining incremental innovation with operational excellence is not so much of an issue, indeed, these two go quite well together. Radical kind of innovation is a different matter. While incremental innovation is accomplished easily in the structures, mindsets and processes on which operational excellence thrives, radical innovation tends to require different structures, mindsets and processes to succeed.

The different mindsets that are supporting radical versus incremental innovation)and operational excellence) is the biggest challenge, and one that tends to be widely ignored.

Let’s take a look at the operational excellence mindset: attention to detail, a focus on numbers, eliminating ambiguities and uncertainties, cutting out any slack, cutting out anything that might be superfluous. Such a mindset thrives on analysis and evidence. 

Contrast that with a mindset thriving on (radical) innovation: here we find a preference for visuals and the big picture, being comfortable with risk and ambiguity, wanting to explore and experiment.  Such a mindset trusts intuition and follows dreams.

By contrasting the mindsets perhaps the potential for conflict has already become obvious: what is important, appreciated, and considered to be important by one grouping is the opposite of what is important, appreciated and considered to be important by the other.  it is not for nothing that we tend to prefer people who are like us, who understand and agree with us, who don't challenge us and focus on the same things that are important to us. When working with those who are different from us misunderstanding happen quickly, tensions arise easily, and appreciation for the contribution of the other is generally lacking.

Yet long term success can only be achieve if we have access to a variety of different mindsets, and are able to bring their different contributions to bear.

Good news is, we don’t need to set out to change people’s preferences and drag them out of their comfort zones, they can stay just as they are. However, not doing anything is not an option, something needs to happen to enable people with different mindsets to work together successfully. Here some suggestions on how to facilitate that:

  1. At the organisational level, create awareness around different mindsets and preferences, and how important diversity is for long term success;
  2. At the team level, help everyone to understand their own strength and preferences and those of others;
  3. At the individual level, find ways to nurture and increase trust and respect.

Below a small selection if ideas of what you could do to enable both innovation, and operational excellence:

What you can do


Illustrate the entire bandwidth of innovation

Illustrate different types and levels of innovation using the Innovation Scape framework which has ‘incremental’, ‘radical’ and ‘disruptive’ innovation on the vertical, and ‘product’, ‘service’, ‘process’, ‘business model’ and ‘social’ innovation on the horizontal axis

Establish shared definitions

Establish some shared definitions of innovation - ideally of different types and levels of innovation, and illustrate them, ideally with examples from your own organisation or industry context

Support the creation of shared language

Using some assessment tools and psychometric tests helps create a language around mindset differences; being able to name them makes things less personal, and can even inject some humour

Create opportunities to identify common ground

Establish opportunities to get together around non-professional topics which are likely to create connections across business functions

Create opportunities to develop respect and trust

Showcase projects / achievements etc. either in regular newsletter, as screen savers on computers, as banners in the reception, during lunch time presentations …

Help people understand their own strength and preferences

There are tools that are particularly helpful in the context of innovation such as the Belgian team roles, the Kirton Adaptor Innovator, or even the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) can be helpful

Use tools that elicit implicit assumptions and habits

Use visuals - picture cards, collages, prototypes, metaphors, they all help create a better shared understanding than words alone

Build on tools that people are familiar with

Tools such as Kaizen and six sigma are excellent primarily for incremental innovation; how might you be able to adjust these to support more radical innovation?

Learn More about Dr. Bettina Von Stamm and the Innovation Leadership Forum

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