Why context is king for innovation

(part 1 / 2)

Dr. Bettina von Stamm is the Founder and Catalyst of the Innovation Leadership Forum and a leading expert on innovation management and innovation leadership. For nearly two decades she has been researching, writing, speaking, teaching, and advising on innovation for senior-level decision makers.

Recently, Imaginatik had the chance to chat with Bettina about innovation and leadership. In particular, we learned about the importance of “context” in determining innovation’s success or failure, and about the  essential role of senior leadership in making innovation sustainable.

In this first post, we focus on how Bettina uses the concept of context to understand innovation successes and failures.

Imaginatik: How did you first get interested in innovation?

Bettina: Early in my career I was studying New Product Development, as part of my PhD research at London Business School. I became fascinated with the “real” reasons development projects succeed or fail. Typically you think of factors such as process design, team composition, etc. But I discovered other, more deeply seated reasons – surrounding context, holistic thinking, human nature. For innovation, the more intangible factors are crucially important.

Imaginatik: Very interesting. Can you tell us more about how context (for example) affects innovation?

Bettina: Innovation is not a rote activity; it is messy and involves change and uncertainty. What works under one set of circumstances does not necessarily work in a different set. So creating the best actions and processes is highly context-dependent. In my framework I present context like an onion. At the center is the organization itself, and its own operational context. The next layer is the relationships between the company and its business contacts – suppliers, partners, customers. Beyond that you have the marketplace as a whole. Each of these layers affects the way a company should think about and approach innovation.

Imaginatik: Can you share an example of how context affects innovation?

Bettina:  As with so many organizations, I worked with a particular large global retailer that decided to seek radical innovation. They decided to move into the services related to their product offering. When the experiment did not deliver within the first 6 months they decided that, after all, radical innovation was not for them. What they failed to understand is that it generally takes time for an established player to engage successfully in radical innovation. If the change is radical, particularly from their particular point of view, it will require a different set of processes, workforce skills, as well as management and operating models. To acquire all of this takes time, especially if it is to be developed entirely in-house.

Imaginatik: How do you advise leaders on planning around context? What lessons can we take away?

Bettina: I have recently started to encourage leaders to think about “leading practices” rather than “best practices”. Merely copying what worked elsewhere can be a disaster when you’re trying to innovate; or rather, you need to understand what you can transfer directly, and what you need to adapt. So while there is much to be learned by starting with lessons and methods that were successful in other companies, I tell leaders to start by asking “Where are you now, why do you want to innovate, and where do you want to go with it?” And then: “What in your  existing context will help you realize your ambition, and what is likely to get in the way? ?”

This forces organizations to think critically about the specifics of their own situation. The innovation challenge needs to be approached holistically and at the system-level before specific plans and actions are put into place.

By the way, I also like to emphasize that constraints arising from context should not be taken as an excuse to remain within them!  On the contrary. What truly innovative organizations are very good at is to re-shape existing conditions and contexts in a way that enables them to realize their dream or vision.

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