Hurdling the main barrier to institutional innovation

by | Jul 22, 2013

Managers, members and stakeholders involved in industry and sustainability bodies often know that their organisation is out of step with its market. They know innovation is needed for high performance, but can’t get momentum. In fact, the harder they try, the more complexity and issues seem to arise and divert energy and efforts.

In our experience, the most common source of problems and complexity for institutional innovation from inception to implementation are the beneficiaries of the status quo. Here is your starting point to unstick change.

We expect people and organisations tend to act in their own interests. However, self-interest needs to take a back seat when involved in organisations that exist to produce benefits for the collective good, such as industry associations, rural R&D corporations and NRM bodies.

These collective good bodies can ill-afford delays in response to shifting stakeholder needs, nor to have funds and resources misallocated to activities that stifle innovation. Yet, how often do you see cases where institutional innovation has stalled? For example, where:

  • out-dated federated industry structures prevail when businesses want direct membership of a modern national body;
  • the rural R&D system is skewed excessively to research when investors want development outcomes; and
  • NRM bodies remain dependent on declining government funding while the private sector places growing value on sustainability.

Whether the sources are internal or external, our experience is that certain traits provide clues or pointers as to how and where beneficiaries of the status quo could be stifling institutional innovation:

  1. Poor governance. Here, you find people who will be threatened by the outcome of innovation in critical decision-making positions. The implication is to resist trying to appease opponents of innovation by elevating their role.
  2. Problem orientation. Often disguised as wise counsel, but always has the effect of increasing complexity, confusion and delay. The implication is to push back and insist on a solutions focus.
  3. Complexity. Problem generators create complexity and issues faster than they can be solved. The implication is that you need to identify and contain these problem factories and apply the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. You are seeking results, not perfection.
  4. Victim mindset. Here, the innovation dialogue becomes about fear of loss should change happen (e.g. loss of jobs, positions on committees, funds). The implication is that you need to keep the focus on the interests of primary stakeholders – community/customers and farmers/land managers. You will find they expect high performance, not mediocrity.

No two change processes are the same, so there are other clues to look for and tactics to employ that will help avoid stifling innovation or fostering mediocrity. The key point is to reflect from the outset on who benefits from not changing the status quo and then design the innovation process accordingly, observe behaviours during implementation and adapt.

A final point is that where innovation results in high performing organisations, it usually means that the leadership stepped up to confront and resolve difficult issues – they chose effectiveness over popularity.

Remember, leaders who were giants of innovation in business (e.g. Edison, Jobs) were not patient, consensus seeking, reasonable people when in pursuit of breakthrough outcomes.

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