Firstly I would argue that innovation, to be managed well, needs to operate like an ecosystem, the same as a tropical rainforest.
For ecosystems to flourish it needs to experience critical feeds, in the rainforest this is high average temperatures and significant rainfall. For innovation to thrive it needs attention to critical aspects; it needs a real focus, well above average and significant attention to be well maintained and flourish.
We argue for diversity within our innovation teams, in our thinking, in our environment and that is no different from the high levels of biodiversity in tropical rainforests.
We need this ‘richness’ of thinking, of approaches, of discovery. We search constantly for ideas, we experiment, and we are subjected to change. We are always looking for that certain something still undiscovered.
Innovation is often under needless threat
I’d argue innovation within organisations is often ‘highly threatened’ due to conflicting pressures and in our rainforests, this is the large-scale fragmentation due to this constant human (failing) of intervention and habitat destruction. We make changes within our organisations to achieve short-term results not reflecting enough on the longer-term consequences. We force out our talented people and can cause a certain ‘extinction’ of the contribution they made to a more balanced vibrancy within the system.
Managing the different strata or layers always needs careful management
Rainforests are divided into different strata or layers with the vegetation organised into a vertical pattern from the canopy top to the soil. Each layer offers a unique bio-community containing different plants and animals adapted for life in that particular stratum. This is so much like our organisations, structured in hierarchies, each dependent but equally each independent to carry on.
We have the forest floor, most of our workforce occupies this position, yet this floor receives only 2% of the sunlight and needs to constantly adapt to survive. I think that represents many organisations in their ratio between top and bottom in pay, in understanding direction and contribution. There is this focusing on simply surviving ‘day-to-day’. There is always a certain decay taking place, not helped by the dense strata above. It is a place that is tough to thrive in but it is critical to all above.
Then we have the understory, the middle managers that are between the canopy and the forest floor. It offers many shade-tolerant shrubs; it is the place that allows vines to climb into the trees to capture light. To capture their light, this understory often evolves much larger leaves to capture more light (craving for recognition) and allows for the dropping of seedlings to the forest floor. I can relate to that for innovation and our organisations, can you? This understory or canopy cover is provided by the middle managers and is crucial to the innovation ecosystem to protect and nurture it.
Then of course we have the rich canopy layer, it forms the roof, it supports the forest as it has the position to attract and support the diversity that is occurring. It determines this, it leads and others simply follow. In amongst this canopy is ‘the emergent layer’, which grows above the average but to meet this they need to be strong to withstand much. So many of our ‘rising stars’ get caught out by strong winds that suddenly blow in and they are caught unprepared, due to changes of sudden direction or misapplied ‘habitat’ destruction (wrong decisions) and take a real tumble, unlikely to recover their former position.
All of these layers are reliant on the sun and the moisture within their soil for rainforests to thrive. Innovation equally needs feeding, by the leadership of our organisations engaging with its needs. Innovation needs new resource minerals, new ideas, new discoveries, and new knowledge flows. If these do not remain fertile, trees are cleared, the soil gets exposed, leached, and it creates run-offs, exposing the erosion that changes the dynamics and vibrancy that innovation can provide.
Then we need to protect the native people of our innovation forest. Those specialised people who understand that innovation are our hunter-gatherers that support others to reside and thrive. People, not technology, systems, and processes make innovation work. They are the ones to give us the diversity to allow for innovation to flourish. There is always this need to understand our innovation experts, they can teach us much about the environment and what it needs. They can protect and nourish the plants, the birds, the insects to thrive in a trusting climate; they can balance often conflicting demands.
Rainforests have different soil types, so does innovation
Soil types in rain forests are highly variable and it is the combination of several variables such as climate, vegetation, position, material, and soil age that make up the different characteristics. Innovation is no different – we have incremental, radical, breakthrough as well as a focus on different types of innovation in approach – for service, for business models, from research-based models or technology. Just take a look at the nine different ones I have suggested in the past and described in this collaborative effort some time back.
Rainforests are also reliant on nutrient recycling, the same is true for innovation in our learning, in our evaluation of understanding and through our success and failures. What inhibited, what released, what accelerated, what aided our innovation efforts? Understanding what allowed us to perform, provides for this recycling for sustaining and fueling future innovation efforts.
Then we have always the need for our buttress roots. These are like the buttress roots, my innovation button, and threads that create a network for gathering, sharing, and translating new knowledge. Today we require and increasingly rely on our networks to give us the sufficient and efficient uptake of innovation nutrients. The more we encourage these buttress roots the more we avoid erosion and maximise this new innovation nutrient we need within our organisations.
Rainforests can be dense and impenetrable, so can innovation
Understanding all that makes up innovation is like this dense tropical rainforest. When you reflect on the term of a jungle or rainforest it has much ambiguity in the application of the term, so tell me doesn’t innovation suffer the same?
Is innovation unruly, it is certainly less advanced than many other functional activities we undertake in organisations. This is slowly changing as we understand it more, all its connected parts. We have allowed innovation to be overgrown with tangled vegetation, often too dense to hinder clear movements or progress? We often layer on more, instead of cutting away the dead wood.
I have suggested innovation needs to be dynamic; we need to become fit and look fully across the innovation landscape. It is our growing understanding of the richness within the innovation diversity that is both exciting to understand but challenging to navigate.
It is good to sometimes cut down some trees, clear away the undergrowth, it allows the potential for greater growth and it does allow the sunlight in. Sometimes, if you are not careful or selective, you can undermine that broader growth but we do have to increasingly manage within a complex ecosystem to strengthen the whole system.
We often need to make ‘tough’ choices but these can prompt a sudden burst of new energy and new growth activity. To truly flourish we need to make our ecosystem vibrant, resilient and sustainable. We need to feed our innovations in the same way as what is required by tropical forests, with everything that allows them to thrive and grow.