Emeritus Professor aladin aladin is leading a workshop on Wednesday 11 January 2017 on Emergency innovation’ – imaginative responses to crisis and uncertainty, as part of the Generate programme. Here he gives his thoughts on organising innovation in volatile times.


The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs, illustrated by Milo Winter in a 1919 edition (Project Gutenberg)

It is a ‘post post’ era [post digital, post globalised, post post modern] of parallel narratives and competing paradigms, where one person’s turbulence is another’s normal. Yet, across contexts, there seems a universality to the palpability and experience of living in unpredictable times of abrupt changes of pace, of flux and of volatility.

There is also therefore a sense of urgency about determining what are the sustainable and practical strategies and protocols that organisations, wider society and the human being need to enact in order for them to be viable and to prosper in these conditions. It’s also grist to the R+D mill and these are exciting times of learning and for trying out new ideas.

It’s a time of great opportunity for the professional or enterprise facing such ambiguity, perpetual risk and uncertainty. It should be the cue for wholeheartedly embracing innovation to help prepare and generate the mindsets necessary for effective management and for the development of operational capacity.

Let me share a thought or two, entirely disproportionately and with some considerable partiality; they arise from my own interdisciplinary experience across sectors of the characteristics of and precursors to innovation failure and success. A few elements I feel are not afforded the prominence they deserve.

One should proceed on the basis of a well-anchored, grounded understanding of ‘innovation’ – particularly in relation to what constitutes its building blocks.

The latter are arguably essentially relational. Therefore, one cannot escape investigating and informing oneself about the cultural anthropology, behavioural psychology and neuroscience of how transformational ideas and solutions emerge. The implications for entrepreneurial mindset, leadership, organisational management and strategic planning need to be methodically and sensitively evaluated.

SPOILER: It’s not about ‘otherising’ and mythologising the innovation function nor is it about reducing the discourse to functional considerations of how to germinate, incubate and productionise genius geese which lay golden eggs or regularly generate ‘Eureka!’ ideas.

A key is to attend to wider considerations of the overarching, encompassing habitat and ecology within which innovation can flourish across an organisation, vertically and horizontally – including how to better interface with external society on the basis of collaboration and partnership. Just as it takes a village to educate a child – a systemic approach is best suited to meeting the long terms needs of an effective innovation approach. In this way of thinking, an innovation strategy that neither iteratively attempts nor even has the ambition to engage and affect personnel throughout a system is not worth the paper it is written on.

Whatever else, innovation thrives at the well-spring of openness, exploration, risk-taking and mistake-making, agnosticism and eclecticism; of course, with suitable caveats and qualifications. These are also ideal bedrocks for developing the general mindset and tendency we would wish to be characteristic of the whole complement of an organisation [and its counterparties!]

Ultimately, the prospects for sustainable innovation in an enterprise are enhanced when innovation strategy impacts an entire micro-ecology [say, ‘the firm’] and ideally is received favourably by the wider ecosystem. Of course, for a process to implicate and be proactively advocated for by such a broad stakeholding requires deeper approaches than are in currency at present.

There are a few avenues/windows which offer promise for either direct or Trojan Horse approaches at making ‘innovation mindset’ indivisible from ‘good practice’ – and so position it for adoption organisation/system-wide. An area of action-research I am undertaking, for instance, applies learning from neuroscience to help organisations inculcate an inclusive and pervasive ‘talent culture’; the HR and CPD functions are natural allies and indeed afford decent trapdoors through which to spring out from with mindset-altering apothecaries.

Not to throw you off the scent – but should you venture some distance on your own quest in these lands, you might find this word has some import: liminalness [my neologistic hacking and re-appropriation of the terms ‘liminal’/’liminality’]

Travel well.

Professor aladin aladin is an academic, strategic counsel, and innovator. He has worked with governments advising on developing country debt, and on the restructurings of global corporations, communications strategies of world cities, and complex community development projects across the world. He has also taught at Manchester University, City University London, LSE, Imperial College London, and Copenhagen Business School.