Three Secret Weapons of Innovation: Sensemaking, Weak Signals Reading and Futuretyping. Which One of Them Do You Currently Practice?

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by: Idris Mootee

Welcome to the 24hr Innovation Marathon! That’s right! This post is part of “My Half Time Pep Talk for 2009,” a collection of posts about innovation on a variety of blogs, as part of the Board of Innovation’s 24 Hours of Innovation event started 3am May15 (Central time) to 3am May16. 

2009 marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman. Their ideas shaped new management thinking for more than two decades and inspired many young managers. The thing I like about Peters is that he is not a philosopher and he doesn’t have any all-embracing theories of the world of organizations or any formulas for change. I’ve heard so too many management thinker/academics talking bullshit about what companies should do and be organized around. They have no clues of what is needed to make innovation happen in complicated large organizational settings. There are only a handful of people truly understand what innovation means and why it is so hard. Peters is one of them. Peters once wrote: “…Perhaps the biggest implication of the Internet is that it has caused the half-life of old, giant companies to go way down.” He didn’t tell you it is happening that fast.

Peters’ advice to companies is “Strive for Strangeness”: Creating a portfolio of the weird and encouraging "freaks" to flourish in the company will help ensure the steady stream of innovative ideas necessary to survive in a hyper-competitive international business environment. How do you encourage people experiment with Lego-like products and services to create innovative business models. Prototyping  can help organizations evolve as rapidly as the opportunities that arise and disappear around them. Executives have many resources at their disposal – capital, technology, channel, and brand – but none are as valuable as their ability to use their own imagination and will to innovate, and empower their managers to do so. Organizations that want to develop a capacity for continuous, game-changing innovation need to equip themselves with a new toolkit.

When the Economist called innovation the “industrial religion of the 21st century.” So what exactly is the new thinking about innovation and why is it so important? Why does it need to be taken so seriously by business and government? Very simply, innovation is the engine of economic progress. Without it many of our firms will go out of business, and those that remain will become second-rate, subservient to international leaders in decision-making and profit taking. Without innovation there won’t be new businesses and jobs that are necessary to support economic growth. There are many ways to go at it, basically there are five schools of innovation:
1.    Foresight-powered vision-driven innovation
2.    Modification and sustaining innovation
3.    Open collaborative (industry) innovation
4.    Jobs-to-be-done or user-driven innovation
5.    Exploration and experimentation-based innovation

Does it matter which innovation schools you organization decides to follow, there is no one best way to do it. It depends on industry competitive context, leadership styles and organizational design and dynamics. The same way that there are many ways to compose a piece of great music.

Innovation has a bigger mission than finding the next great product extension. It is an institutional capability. It is more than just one successful new product. We have many problems to solve and so many opportunities for innovation. Look around us. The world’s population is exploding and this population growth drives deforestation, the expansion of agricultural land, the pollution of air, water and soil, and suburban sprawl etc. Human activity, such as urbanization and development, spoils wildlife habitats and makes many species extinct. Changes in our landscape are occurring faster and on a larger scale than ever before. Our population could pass 13 billion in fifty years.

Never before in the history of earth have so many people shared the planet earth. At the same time, we are persisting in developing “labor saving” technologies to automate everything. Technology is dragging us into unknown and dangerous territories by accelerating social change. Business, societies, nature and policies are struggling to keep up and probably 4-5 years behind. My point here is that all innovations have unforeseen consequences – even when they are done for the very best reasons. It is not just more products. Do we really need more products?

The next Innovation is about solving bigger problems and innovation that are transformative in nature. How do we make sense of all these complexities? The three most important toolkits that help create transformative innovation in Idea Couture’s toolbox are 1/ sense-making 2/ weak signals reading 3/futuretyping. I will explain more here.

What’s Sensemaking? Sensemaking involves the ongoing retrospective development of plausible visuals that rationalize what people are doing. Using a visual language to help unfold as a sequence in which people concerned with identity in the social context of other actors engage ongoing circumstances from which they extract cues and make plausible sense retrospectively. We are not limited to one identity when we do this. In a human complex system, an agent is anything that has identity, and we constantly flex our identities (both individually and collectively) and behave differently depending on the context.

Sensemaking is a metacognitive strategy, it is clear that people recognize patterns in the data in ways that they can’t talk about. That kind of inarticulate recognition (meaning that you can’t express it easily) is what we perceive as intuition. We’ve all got it, and good sensemakers have good intuitions about how things go together. Boundaries are possibly the most important elements, in sensemaking, because they represent differences among or transitions between the patterns we create in the world that we perceive. The exercise can effectively serve as the springboard to action.

What’s Weak Signals Reading? This is about the strategic management of surprising and potentially impactful (not necessarily bad) events, or call it card management system. Wild cards refer to sudden and unique incidents that can constitute turning points in the evolution of a certain trend. As the first of the two components of such a wild card system, a weak signal methodology to take into account those wild cards that can be anticipated by scanning the decision environment. The second component, the nurture of improvisation capabilities, is designed to deal with unanticipated ongoing crises as part of a broader agenda on how to manage in conditions of continuous but unpredictable change. Seeing the unseeable and thinking the unthinkable.

What’s Futuretyping? It is about prototyping different strategic futures. It is a far more effective method than scenario planning. It allows the key stakeholders to be able to touch a tangible future and create excitement so they can channel their energy and imagination. Prototyping the future business model is not a spreadsheet exercise. It borrows heavily from system-dynamics.

Continue onwards to the 24 Hours of Innovation marathon event. Happy reading.

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