The organizational role of an innovator is often an ambiguous one, but its importance is undisputed. The term is used to indicate something special within the corporate world, something more involved than job title or place in a hierarchy. Being an innovator places personal responsibility on an individual to behave in certain ways and achieve certain outcomes. What is the special sauce that causes others to say ‘that person is innovative’ or ‘there’s one of our best innovators’?
The answer to this question lies in what these people do, how they behave, and the outcomes they achieve. These are determined by the principles they abide by and their mindset in undertaking the initiatives they are responsible for—their stance towards a few key principles.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a primary meaning of ‘stance’ as:
“a way of thinking about something, especially expressed in a publicly stated opinion”
An innovator’s stance is therefore of primary importance, not just because it represents the way they think, but also because of the way they publicly advocate for their thinking. Among the key stances an innovator needs are the following.
- Stance towards systems—don’t do piecemeal, do systems
- Stance towards the future—don’t do forecasts, do foresight
- Stance towards uncertainty—don’t do risk, do uncertainty
And one overarching principle—a stance towards purpose—don’t only do profit, do purpose as well.
First stance: Don’t do piecemeal, do systems
In addition to design and analytic thinking, innovators need to be experts in systems thinking. A systems perspective applies both to how the innovator designs and builds the innovation system used by the enterprise, as well as how the innovator creates new opportunities themselves.
Most innovation ‘systems’ at large companies have been built piecemeal over time and are assemblages of different processes, methods and tools that have been cobbled together (see The Innovation Triangle: A Fix for our Ramshackle House of Innovation). A holistic design employs a systems perspective that includes all five of the elements of strategy, people, organization, operation, and metrics. It’s an innovator’s job to internalize and work to build a system.
In addition, it is an innovator’s job to apply systems thinking to the new concepts and opportunities the enterprise is creating. No longer is it sufficient to contemplate an innovative new offering or business model in isolation, it must be imagined within the future ecosystem that it will influence and be influenced by.
Second stance: Don’t do forecast, do foresight
An innovator needs to take the inherently unknowable future into account in everything they do. A natural human tendency is to forecast what the future will look like using projections of the past. This works up to a point - somewhat. But forecasting beyond 1, 2 or 3 years into the future is increasingly problematic in today’s rapidly changing world. In the future, you will run into a ‘prediction horizon’. This is the point at which traditional analytical tools become ineffective, but beyond which long-term survival will probably be determined.
Foresight is the counterpart to forecast, and it is how an innovator envisions future scenarios beyond the prediction horizon. These are the futures that inform new opportunity (see Using the Innovator’s Toolkit to Create Foresight-based Options-driven Strategy voids extrapolating trends to predict the future. Instead, it enables an innovator to envision multiple, plausible futures and to use those scenarios to create strategic options for present day action.
Third stance: Don’t do risk, do uncertainty
Many people confuse risk with uncertainty, and this causes problems. Frank Knight, in his 1921 book Risk, Uncertainty and Profit identified the difference between the two. Many others (Mervyn King and John Kay’s book Radical Uncertainty is one example) have written about the differences and the importance of understanding and managing uncertainty because it requires you to play by different rules than risk does.
In both the case of risk and uncertainty, it is a given that one does not know what will happen in the future. But with risk, one has a pretty good idea of the probability distribution of potential outcomes and an outcome can be predicted to happen a known percentage of the time. With uncertainty, however, the probability distribution of potential outcomes is itself unknown. Companies know how to handle risk. Uncertainty, however, makes them extremely uncomfortable.
Innovators deal almost exclusively in the world of uncertainty. One of their tasks is to reveal it, manage its effects and reduce it (see Uncertainty is the Innovator’s Friend). The reduction of uncertainty requires both the skills of the innovator and an innovation system designed for the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world we live in.
And one more stance: Don’t just do profits, do purpose as well
Every innovator has, as one of their motivations, the desire to have a positive impact on the world. But, besides the positive effects that innovations have on their customers and society, they often have unexpected and unintended consequences. This includes being co-opted by their own company, their customers, or their competitors who adhere to the Friedman doctrine  that the only responsibility companies have is to maximize shareholder profits.
The choices of companies, the innovations they pursue, and the effects on society are all connected (see stance 1—thinking in systems). As innovators, our imperative is to influence the balance between profits and a deeper purpose that is needed in today’s world (see How Can You Foster Purpose-driven Innovation). Innovators need to anticipate unintended consequences, not just the wonderful outcomes that are expected. They need to be purpose-driven advocates for their creations.
Don’t take the wrong stance when you know the right one
No matter what their title, an innovator must not only practice, but be an advocate for the right stance on innovation. Thinking in systems, having foresight, managing uncertainty and being purpose-driven are approaches today’s innovator not only must use but also embody and promote in all that they do.
- Christian, B.; The Innovation Triangle: A Fix for our Ramshackle House of Innovation; Inovo Blog; February 2018; https://www.theinovogroup.com/innovation-triangle/
- Schmitt, L.; Using the Innovator’s Toolkit to Create Foresight-based Options-driven Strategy
- Knight, F.; Risk, Uncertainty and Profit
- King, M and Kay, J.; Radical Uncertainty
- Schmitt, L.; Uncertainty is the Innovator’s Friend; Inovo Blog; March 2018; https://www.theinovogroup.com/uncertainty-innovators-friend/
- Schmitt, L.; How Can You Foster Purpose-driven Innovation?; Innovation Leader; October 20-23; https://www.innovationleader.com/thought-leadership/how-can-you-foster-purpose-driven-innovation/1469.article
- Freidman, M.; The Social responsibility of Companies is to Increase its Profits; The New York Times Magazine; September 13, 1970