In 1700, European leaders faced a famine. An over-reliance on wheat and a rejection of the potato because it was strange and unappealing was leading to famine. Frederik the Great of Prussia set out to address the nation’s distaste by passing 15 orders aimed at driving the adoption and cultivation of the potato; these orders ultimately failed.

It was only when Frederik ordered his soldiers to visibly guard the local royal potato field, whilst subtly turning a blind eye to any theft, that things started to change. Suddenly potatoes were being stolen, grown and eaten in abundance.

With his success, Frederik provided the policy makers of the future with an anecdote of how the subtle art of persuasion, coupled with an innovator’s desire to test and learn, yielded better outcomes than the laws and sanctions of the past.

Systemic barriers to innovation

Calling upon fables of Kings to help modern organisations tackle the challenges of an increasingly complex and interconnected world may seem crude. However, parallels can be drawn between Frederik and us as humans and innovators in how we can overcome systemic barriers to innovation. To call on the recent RSA model, achieving impact requires us to adopt a ‘think like systems and act like entrepreneurs’ mindset. Like Frederik, we are not only required to understand the ‘system’ we are working within and the barriers that exist, but use our analysis of these problems to identify the most promising opportunities for working around them.

Whether it’s an effort to make Europeans eat potatoes, the first person to try and design travel by air or a consultant employed to deliver yet another transformation programme within an already strapped for cash National Health Hospital Trust, innovators face many barriers. These might be short-term ‘reasons why not’,  such as the commonly cited ‘innovation alibis’ that Future Shaper Simon HIll speaks about in his latest article, or more fundamental barriers to the longer-term adoption of innovation which catapult ideas right back to square one.

Depending on the nature of the organisation, it may be the power dynamics and entrenched ‘command and control’ culture that becomes the biggest barrier to impact. Alongside this, regulatory frameworks, market readiness and procurement can also play a significant role in creating substantial barriers to effective change. Making time to analyse obstacles, whether they are a one-time problem or systemic and therefore likely to recur, may sound obvious but it’s amazing how many organisations skip this step and don’t take time to truly understand and plan to address these barriers.

Think where you can make an impact

At Wazoku we take the approach that the best starting point for overcoming barriers is pinpointing where you can start to generate impact and working backwards from this. However, for our customers to be successful in their endeavours requires more than understanding systemic conditions and planning for innovation paralysis, it requires developing ideas using human-centred methods. This is where design thinking comes in.

Whilst design thinking is all too often associated with the look and feel of a product, organisations are increasingly adopting a design-led approach to product and service innovation. Using design thinking as a framework allows organisations to understand their problems, develop solutions, prototype and test them using iterative ‘safe-fail’ method. Uncovering problems in a collaborative and iterative manner means that they aren’t tied to a single solution but instead can respond to the challenges posed along the way.

An entrepreneurial state of mind

Yet there’s a third key element needed to effectively overcome barriers to change in adverse conditions – adopting the mindset of an entrepreneur. As Rowan Conway argues in her report: ‘from design thinking to systems change’, as innovators we must ‘mimic the habits of entrepreneurs … spotting the best opportunities for change and maximising the possibility for an innovation to navigate through the barriers to change and make an impact at scale.

What adopting an entrepreneur’s mindset encourages our customers to do is involve the right people in the process, iterate to make their innovations fit within the strict parameters of the system, and most importantly, remain optimistic. Yet rather than just having a small number of entrepreneurs, we help our customers foster a culture of entrepreneurship throughout the organisation, something we refer to as ‘intranpreneurship.’ Having an army of intrapreneurs who understand the complexities of the systems in which they work, solve problems in an iterative and dynamic way and maintain the zeal and optimism of succeeding not only makes organisations remain competitive, but sets them up to solve the problems of tomorrow.


Unlike Frederik the Great, few of us are in the position to risk 15 attempts before arriving at a solution. We can all however be entrepreneurial in our approach and iterate until we find the way that works. Another thing we can learn is to encourage an entrepreneur’s mindset across organisations. By allowing people to steal potatoes Frederik was encouraging the entrepreneurs who would start the change movement to come forward, providing the path for them to spread a new behaviour at a local level. History may have its tyrants but it’s full of innovators who provide us with valuable lessons for the future.