Visualising Innovation Eco-Systems

Alpine flowers

Fragile eco-systems (photo Simon Evans)

How do we look at the big picture of Innovation?

There are many different models of innovation out there, and they all have their respective merits and challenge our thinking in different ways.  In this (hopefully) post recession world however it is time that we take another look at how we are all looking at and thinking about our innovation capability.  There is a common perception that innovation is getting harder (see any of the recent Boston Consulting papers for example), and that our “freedoms to innovate” feel like they have been curtailed.  Our successful approaches in the past may no longer be good enough in this new world – unless we refresh out thinking there is a danger that we will end up stuck in the past trying to repeat those successes.

Innovation as we all know is not about a single magic formula, or a process that we can just implement and succeed.  It is instead a complex environment of subtle influences and capabilities which will vary wildly from place to place dependant on the emergent situation.  It is also very delicate– it takes little to upset it and prevent it from working well.

In this blog I would like to explore how we might describe innovation as an eco-system that supports and nurtures our ideas and extracts the maximum value from them.  Maybe we can gain some insights and regain our big picture understanding of what factors make innovation a success in today’s world.

Why an Eco-System?

The term has been used by a number of people in the past , but came into focus for us at InnovoFlow when it was suggested by a workshop client.  When asked, “what message will you take home from the workshop?” his answer was “I like the way there is a holistic overview of all the things that make innovation happen – it’s like an eco-system of inter-dependant habitats”.  This was spot on – we can imagine an effective innovation space as having different zones of activity – habitats if you like, filled with all the nutrients, symbiots,  life-forms and substrates (as well as a few predators), that are needed to make a healthy and successful eco-system.

By following this model we can start to help people know  what goes where and understand why it is needed and if anything is missing.  We can also help them understand when the eco-system needs to adapt or change, and give them the tools to construct an adaptive,  functional architecture that is a reflection of the current opportunity they face and the resources they can afford – we must remember there are no free lunches, only lunches that meet the needs and pockets of the diners.

Populating the Innovation Eco-system

Let’s imagine that our innovation eco-system has  4 habitats or zones as follows:

  • Creativity – those things that inspire and generate ideas and allow us  to identify those ideas with greatest potential.
  • Development – The activities which tend to add potential value to our idea and make it into something real.   Without this zone we would just have a pile of useless things that will soon be forgotten.
  • Value Realisation – once our ideas have been validated and built into a real offering, it is time to release that pent up value and make the idea do some work!  Some form of value generation is what it is all about of course and so this activity is critical to our ongoing success, without it we may as well not bother having and developing ideas.
  • Leadership – or perhaps we should term it Gardening?  Those activities that nurture the innovation eco-system and keep it healthy so that the other three zones can do their work of processing ideas quickly and with the greatest possible value add.

So what sort of activities could we place in these zones to populate them?  We must be realistic, scarcity of resources will not allow us to introduce everything we want to, but each habitat/zone must have sufficient processes and activities to ensure that ideas are created, developed and then value generated within the most efficient framework possible.  It is important to remember at this point that ideas cannot exist in a vacuum – as Alfred North Whitehead observed, “Ideas won’t keep.  Something must be done about them”.   In this model it means that at all times, your ideas must be supported by one process or another within the eco-system zone.   Without this the ideas will wither away in the breeze.  We can picture our ideas being born in the creative zone, and then moving through the various habitats while a variety of processes add value and solidity to them.  Maintaining the balance within and between the zones is the key to efficiency and innovation velocity (as measured by the rate of flow of good ideas through the system).

Some things are obvious.  In the Creative habitat we should not be surprised to see a selection of processes such as  idea management systems, crowdsourcing, open innovation, or unlearning, but what of “softer” things like courage, finding the non-conformists or allowing time to pursue personal projects?  Similarly considering our Development habitat, obvious things like development teams, joint ventures and open source developments may spring to mind, to which we can add less concrete things like diversity, rainmakers or maybe the value of taking a walk in the woods.  Leadership processes might include a management team willing to adopt new ideas, luck (self made), innovation strategies, the impact of working environments  or knowledge sharing.

The Importance of Visualisation

To stop the analysis simply becoming  shopping list of things that you want to do, it is important to physically populate the eco-system habitats on paper or a board so it becomes a very visual and you can start to map out the pathways your new ideas might take through the eco-system.  It also becomes painfully obvious where you are missing capability or resources and so you are less likely to have a nasty shock as your idea gets stuck somewhere unexpected.

At the very least, this approach makes it clear that a huge variety of different factors are at play here and that keeping your innovation eco-system healthy is not just a matter of training people to brainstorm, setting up an innovation initiative  and installing an idea management system (however valuable that tool might be!).

When using the model it is important that whole end-to-end life-cycle of the ideas is represented and clearly visible so that each step can be supported in a deliberate way, with sufficient resources so that the required activities actually work in the environment.  If this is done well, then not only will the innovation capability will be more coherent and efficient, but also there is a good chance you will find it much easier to argue the case for funding as the processes that drive the returns are considered with the same weight as those activities which generate the ideas in the first place!


The eco-system approach to innovation can be summarised as follows:

  • Visualise your innovation space as consisting of creative, development, value realisation and leadership zones
  • Ensure that each of these zones is populated with a variety of “things” (processes, people, skills, philosophies, events, architectures, strategies etc.) sufficient to meet your current challenge effectively and within any resource constraints.  Ensure that as much attention is applied to the value realisation zone as the creative zone (which of course is very sexy and is where a lot of the fun is).
  • Imagine your ideas appearing in the creative zone and moving across the the other zones.  Ask yourself what do you need to do at each stage to maximise the flow of ideas and the potential value that is added to them
  • Be prepared to have multiple eco-systems – one size approach does not fit all situations within your organisation.
  • Be adaptive – be an agile innovation leader!  Continuously remodel the eco-system as needed to keep up with emergent trends.  Be aware of the need to change approach, have the freedom to innovate – don’t be constrained by the way things have always been done.
  • Practice these skills routinely so your thinking is always being challenged.  Test your model and see what might happen if you introduced some new thinking.
  • Have fun – innovation should be fun, engaging and exciting and involve everyone in some way –  we are all sharing the same eco-system after all!

“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got”  Albert Einstein


One response to “Visualising Innovation Eco-Systems

  1. Pingback: Little Nuggets | Pearltrees

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