The innovation protagonists

If the innovation landscape is setting the stage for innovation to occur, you may well ask for the main cast: who are the innovation protagonists? I’ve indicated some of my thinking in the recent walk across that landscape, but I feel the need to be more specific about the roles that institutions, organisations, and entrepreneurs play. Focusing on the difference between those roles, I’ll first paint them in black-and-white.

To begin with, let’s consider the entrepreneur. Great minds have written extensively about this role  at the heart of innovation: Jean-Baptiste Say in the early 19th century, Joseph A. Schumpeter in the 1930s, Peter F. Drucker in the 1960s (Wikipedia offers an overview of the evolution of the term “entrepreneurship“). All of these definitions and descriptions essentially see the entrepreneur as an actor in a business context, and I don’t disagree with that. Today, entrepreneurial activity is most visible in start-ups successfully challenging the top-dogs. But I don’t subscribe to constraining entrepreneurship only to the business context (as a counter-proposal, think about social entrepreneurs). Nor do I subscribe to an expanded view that equates entrepreneurship directly with innovation (not every innovation is brought forward by an entrepreneur).

To my mind, an entrepreneur combines three characteristics. First, fresh thinking. He is not tied to overcome conventions, nor does he depend on conventional wisdom. On the contrary, he follows his own guide star and seeks his own answers. Second, the dedicated will to implement. An entrepreneur is not satisfied with just having a good idea. Rather, he wants to see it in action. And he has the drive and dedication to move mountains for his idea to become reality. Finally, a fine sense for the opportunity. The outstanding ability of an entrepreneur is the anticipation of evolving trends. Sometimes, this might come across as a special gift of foresight, but essentially it is an instinct that I believe only few have. These skills makes the entrepreneur the ideal champion of change, not afraid of venturing into uncharted territory. Because change is his comfort zone, the entrepreneur is ready to challenge the status quo. His impact then becomes visible in shifting attention and resources away from “business as usual to something new and exciting.

I’ve pictured the entrepreneur as an individual, which might be a bit exaggerated. But I do believe the entrepreneurship is  usually exercised in a very small unit of just a handful of people. That is important to keep baggage and constraints limited, and to maintain agility. The entrepreneur is travelling light with little to loose, so that the cost of failure is comparatively negligible. This gives the entrepreneur a clear strategic advantage, he has lots to gain in situations where other actors are too big or too slow to respond to a challenge.

Organisations are an entirely different bread. While an entrepreneur pursues his own, self-defined goal, an organisation is created to reach a specific goal. Usually the creation of an organisation is the result of a conscious decision to establish the structures and processes to achieve that objective. And these structures and processes, together with the overall objective, are laid down in something like the terms of reference of that organisation.

Of course there is a broad range of organisations today. These include companies, research laboratories, political parties, trade unions, associations, foundations; they include governmental as well as non-governmental organisations; they exist at local, regional, national, and international levels; they may be private and public. All of those may very well be in need of innovation at same stage (in fact, the creation of any organisation is an innovation in itself). But only few of them pursue an objective that is directly focused on innovation: companies and research laboratories. We should add universities (which can take many different organisational shapes), as they are engaged in research and, even more importantly, through their paramount role in higher education, develop the talent pool for innovation.

Every organisation has its defined „business as usual“ with a clear focus on the organisation’s objective, and all structures and processes are optimised for that business. The general purpose of an organisation then is to focus attention and channel resources on “business as usual in order to achieve its objective effectively and efficiently. And because organisations often command considerable resources, they are ideally positioned to handle any problem that falls within their objective. However, for problems outside that defined scope, organisations struggle. Complexity and inertia can make them slow to respond. The focus on a specific objective makes them see the world through that one lens, hence they are inclined to make new problems fit to old solutions (If you have hammer, every problem looks like a nail). And finally, they will not look into potential solutions if those might challenge their own existence. Organisations are the right tool to handle the issues they’ve been set up to handle, but their ability to handle the unknown or the unexpected is limited.

Finally, society. Now you might wonder whether society is really an actor in the innovation landscape. I’d argue that society sets the essential conditions for innovation to occur, by defining the rules of the games, a.k.a. institutions. They evolve (i.e., society adjusts them) over long periods of time, and despite the usually glacial speed, this role of society is an important innovation activity. To be sure, quick changes in institutions do occur, but they occur rarely, and we usually call such rapid changes revolutions. At a less dramatic, but still far-reaching level, institutions are society’s tool to shape the global innovation landscape that promotes the well-being, prosperity, and progress of society.

This black-and-white picture must leave a couple of questions unanswered: What are the grey areas, such as entrepreneurial companies or lobby groups? And how do the protagonists interact with each other? That will lead into the dynamics of the innovation landscape, and further on to competition. I’ll tackle those in upcoming posts.

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