Why we need to broaden our innovation mindset

You might picture our established structures as the hardware that we run our innovation supply chain on. They certainly direct the energy, the resources we invest in innovation. And they have significant implications for our “innovation software”, i.e., our understanding of innovation, our innovation mindset. That’s what I’ll discuss today along two main questions: the first deals with attraction vs. radiation, the second tackles ownership vs. access.

Attract or radiate?

In traditional problem solving, we tend to focus on the problem statement first. Once we understand it (which is pretty easy for a known problem), we then move on to identify all the ideas for potential solutions that could contribute to a solution. The result is a rather deterministic mindset: the solution is systematically developed step by step, starting from a solid understanding of the problem. You might call this approach “problem pull“: We keep the focus on we the given, known problem and then seek to attract all the ideas necessary to solve. And we see the value of those ideas only in light of the specific problem we are focused on.

That works very well for the known problems, but it leaves us at a loss when faced with unexpected problems. In such a situation, the deterministic mindset leads us to first try to understand the problem in full detail before we can start working towards a solution. And that positions us as the proverbial deer staring in the head lights of the approaching car: by the time we have a solid grasp of the new the new challenge and are ready to respond, it might be too late.

The other fallacy that the deterministic mindset supports is that of perfection: we tend to seek the optimal solution, the perfect response to the problem. We are not comfortable with accepting the implementation of a partial solution as an intermediate step. And again, that mindset makes us slower than we could be.

And finally, we implicitly accept the assumption that there’s nothing new under the sun, that we can handle all problems with what we have in stock. That’s hardly a rational consideration, still it is nothing less than arrogant.  As a result, we remain blind for emerging risks, and we miss future opportunities as well. Time to break the traditional mould and escape the dictate of the known problems.

While the deterministic mindset has its definite benefits when dealing with known problems, we must find alternative approaches to address novel problems. Consider an “idea push“: let’s find out how a single idea could radiate a variety of solutions. Yes, that does not yield a predetermined result. Yes, that it is comparatively unstructured approach. But it has a tremendous speed advantage: we would get to the action earlier, especially when combined with step-by-step or even experimental implementation. We would obtain a much-needed expansion of our problem-solving toolbox, particularly effective to cope with novel problems.

Changing our mindset is far from easy, but once we move away from the traditional focus on known problems, we can try to get rid of another of our preconceived ideas: that we could innovate successfully only if we are entirely in control.

Own or access?

Our innovation structures, our organizations and processes, seem to straightjacket our thinking in a particular way: ‘Isn’t innovation best achieved, like any other business, when you control the structures, when you define the organizations, when you shape the processes, when you run the entire business yourself?‘ And that view is backed up by traditional resource considerations: ‘Isn’t it natural condition for running a successful business that you obtain command over the required resources?

Following those ideas further, ownership of all innovation structures and full control over all innovation resources appear as the guaranteed path to innovation success. And we go on to conclude that this closed approach, that our focus on ownership and control, which is perfectly suited for the centralised organisations and processes that we employ to manage our resources, is the best way to run our innovation business. A textbook case of circular logic.

However, innovation is no business like any other, and knowledge is no conventional resource either. Hence we must break free from that circular logic to escape from that closed mindset. We must dare think about innovation differently, striving for an open innovation mindset.

So what if we don’t control the organisations and processes? What if we don’t command all the resources that we need to succeed? How could we be sure to obtain what we need? How could we be sure to succeed? Admittedly, letting go of control is a disconcerting perspective for anybody used to holding the reins tightly. But there’s a lot to gain from broadening your innovation mindset.

For a start, let’s accept that the innovation relevant for your business or organisation is not only driven by the people on your payroll. That realisation alone explains why the concept of open innovation makes sense: the people who could make a useful contribution to the solution of your specific problem are more numerous than you think, and many are outside your control span. Along the same lines, useful knowledge you could employ is spread further and farther than what your own organization and processes can control. And finally, solving your problem does not only require the attention of those who understand the problem, or those working an a concrete solution; you’ll benefit from the attention of people who might contribute a good idea for a potential solution.

Of course, the three perspectives of people, their attention, and the useful knowledge they could offer (or help generate) are massively intertwined in reality. Still, keeping them separate for a moment makes it easier to see how the concept of open innovation differs from the closed concept we had focused on in the past. Open innovation acknowledges the existence of the intangible resources (useful knowledge and attention) and seeks ways to tap those resources beyond the immediate control parameter of a given organisation.

Awareness and access are success-critical for open innovation, and both are two-way roads. Regarding awareness, an organisation first needs to be aware of those external resoures (people and useful knowledge) that could support a novel problem-solution. In a second step, making these people aware of the organisation’s problem, and gaining their attention to contribute to a potential solution are essential. For access, the storyline is similar: once the organisation has the awareness of potential contributors, it must then seek access to their ideas for potential solutions and the useful knowledge they could provide. At the same time, the organisation must make itself accessible to those potential external contributors.

Yes, it requires a fundamental shift in perspective to move away from the established closed mindset and adopt such an open mindset. But in order to deal successfully with novel problems, we’ll have to be creative. Citizen science or slush events are just two examples that demonstrate novel ways for bringing together problems and ideas for solutions from a broad range of sources and across traditional organisations, and beyond the conventional limitations of ‘ownership and control‘. Instead, these promising approaches address the problems of ‘awareness and access‘ to escape the limitations of traditional organisational logic.

This is the time for experimentation, for a confident and open innovation mindset that favours speed and agility, that overcomes the old focus on ownership and control. That’s a genuine challenge for conventional organisations that are strictly tied to their traditional emphasis on efficient management of resources. I don’t mean to insinuate the end of the big corporations; after all they still control large portions of the available resources. However, the open innovation mindset is a long-awaited complement for our problem-solving toolbox. This new way of dealing with innovation, this open and agile mindset, is particularly suited for dealing with novel problems. And that’s an area of the innovation landscape that we have been poorly equipped for – so far.



  1. I like this, it taps into the constraints of today we need to find the solutions for tomorrow

    • Thanks a lot for the feedback.
      Over the last few posts I have expressed a couple of ideas that all somehow relate to what we could do / should do “to find the solutions for tomorrow”. I’ll try to integrate those ideas in a more stringent storyline in the upcoming post. So stay tuned.

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