Grounded Innovation

The message of innovation guru Clayton is clear: companies that want to develop a breakthrough business should separate the development team from the running business. But is that really true? Lets compare the innovation inspiration with the energy from the sun. In nature, the sun’s energy is transformed into life when adsorbed by plants: by landing on the ground. Likewise, innovative ideas and visions can only become ‘alive’ through grounding. They need to be transformed into elements of daily life: part of the people’s habits, part of the new sales catalogue, part of the production schedule, part of an innovated business.  Innovation that does not land on the ground will never change the world of the people outside the innovation team, and as such is little more than a cloud with good intentions.  One may ask: how can innovation ever be disruptive if it needs to be grounded?  But the reality is the reverse: innovations can only ever be disruptive if they get traction with day-to-day routines of real life. Innovation energy can only flow when good ideas are transformed into real business. – when it gets grounded.

Let me try to illustrate the concept of ‘grounded innovation’ with my experience with two Dutch examples of radical modernizations of more than hundred-year old institutions, which affect my daily life. The first case is the ‘Fyra’ the high –speed connection between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, which was developed by the National Railways (NS). The second case is NRC Next, the ‘easily accessible thin paper for 20-30 year olds’, which was launched by Quality Paper NRC. NRC Next was developed by a low-budget team with strong ties with the knowledge and constraints of the existing newspaper tradition, while the ‘Fyra’ was intentionally separated from the running railway business. NRC Next is a success, and inspired by the ‘Next experience’ the mother paper ‘NRC’ is also innovating its lay-out, content and language. NRC and NRC Next have one consumer interface, and customers can choose all kinds of combinations, for instance a NRC Next paper copy and a NRC digital subscription. The ‘Fyra’ story is different: the ‘Fyra’ is exploited separately from the NS. The fast train services between Rotterdam and Breda poorly relate to the ‘normal’ trains and reversely, the ‘normal’ NS does not benefit from the availability of a fast track and the experience with a new business model.  When the Fyra-trains are delayed, NS personnel cannot help, because they do not have access to the Fyra schedules. Contrary to NRC Next, the introduction of the Fyra has been a commercial disaster.

Posted in innovation | Leave a comment

Innovation is only a young discipline

Even though recent management literature is buzzing with good advice on innovation, we  need to realize that innovation management is a very young discipline. Until quite recently, the attention of management scholars was focused on increasing the efficiency and efficacy of existing businesses.  Innovation as part of the company strategy only became part of boardroom agendas during the nineties of the previous century. The 1995 success of Prahalad and Hamel’s classic ‘Competing for the Future’ illustrates the major shift in management thinking that occurred at that time.  Company leaders started to realize that it was no longer sufficient to focus on ‘protecting the company’s core’ but that the rapidly changing world required the development of new strategic directions, which often required innovations to materialize.  And from that time, innovation became part of management thinking.  That does not mean that companies did not innovate before the nineties: just think of telephones, tv’s, radios, pc’s, cars and many other household products which were developed before the innovation revolution. But those products were developed without innovation management tools like stage-gates, and prescribed product development and business creation processes. Something that is hard to imagine for innovation leaders in today’s world. Twenty years after the ‘discovery’, innovation management has become a discipline of it’s own: bookshelves are piling out with good advice about ambidexterity, stage-gate processes, blue ocean strategies, design thinking and business creation. And in many companies, innovation is managed as a part of the business, with clear targets, progress reviews, portfolio management and transparent resource allocation. But let’s be honest, the innovation track record of many companies remains poor. In real life, it remains very difficult to make new ideas part of an existing, running business.

Posted in innovation | Leave a comment

Unlocking the Innovation Spirit

Innovation is a life-changing experience.  It does not matter if the project was the start of a whole new business or the ‘simple launch of a new soup’. When a company innovates, something special happens. By ‘starting something new’ people inside change the storyline of the company they work for. And in that process, they tap into the full potential of themselves and their organization. When teams reflect on such a successful innovation journey, you may still hear that ‘unlocked energy’ in the tone of their voices, and see reflections of a great and deep emotion twinkling in their eyes. Would it not be great if we could develop more of such inspiring adventures?

I am afraid that most managers do not want to look at innovation in this ‘spiritual’ way. They regard innovation as an essential activity to deploy their corporate strategy, and will focus on management tools to pull off new initiatives: creativity sessions, stage gate processes, business cases, etc. All very valuable in their own right, but ‘if innovation management processes would be all there is to innovation, why are not more companies much more innovative?’ [1] In the end, innovation is shaped by human initiative and interaction, and not by management processes. If companies want to become more innovative, they will need to find ways to tap into the human energy behind innovation initiatives. But how can you do that?

In many running businesses, human passion and inspiration is locked behind behavior patterns that strengthen the current company story and structure. Management targets, the organization structure, and the dynamics of today’s business determine the day-to-day behavior. Innovative initiatives are generally regarded as disturbances: they take the eye off the current business, and require management to re-shuffle priorities and positions. Leaders of innovative initiatives intuitively feel this tension, and turn their back on the running business. Instead, they focus on initiatives that do not interfere too much with the existing hierarchy and patterns, and therefore will never change the storyline of the company they work for.

The innovation leader will need to find a way to tap into the passion and spirit of his team members to inspire them to jointly start a journey with an uncertain outcome – to become a community of ‘actors’. In an innovation team, people share an insight and a vision about the future, and understand which individual role they need to play to make that future real.  Innovation teams that lack the innovation spirit altogether will never be able to break limiting patterns in their running organization.

Innovation management processes and project planning tools will help an innovation leader to navigate towards a successful implementation of his new initiative. But a process manager who forgets to unlock the human spirit will never be an innovation leader.

[1] Emmo Meijer, personal communication

Posted in innovation | Leave a comment

Innovation = Organization Development

When a company innovates, it means that the people within that company have been able to change the storyline of themselves and of the company they work for. They acted.

When we act, we express ourt human ability to distinguish ourselves.

When we ‘act’ we show our identity. When employees ‘act’ to re-position or re-invent the company they work for, they identify themselves with that company.

But, at the same time, their action will affect the identity of the other employees, who also take part in the company-play.

The observation that innovation requires ‘human action’ explains why merely ‘ordering innovation’ will not work. Instead, innovation requires germ cells of human action in relation to the identity of the company. To activate the innovation potential of a running company, we therefore ‘only’ need to develop such germ cells of human action. How?

From psychology we know that someone will be only able to ‘act’ if he or she

(1) has created a conceptual picture (insight) of the situation he/she is in, which allows  him/her to identify the ‘degrees of freedom’ for action

(2) he/she understand how his/her special talents, skills or connection can enhance the degrees of freedom in the given situation

and (3) he/she feels part of a community with a shared fate in which the relations between the members leaves space for open-ended initiatives.

But what does this mean in real life? Just imagine that your company intends to grow double its size while retaining its current carbon footprint. To deliver innovations towards this stretching goal, we will need to develop two pieces of information: (1) where are the opportunities for growth and (2) how can we reduce our carbon footprint.  Germ cells for innovation can only be created within communities who commit themselves to this strategic intent in various areas of the business. The basis of such a community will be the insight on how the individual members can contribute towards delivery of that goal.

Building such a community can be managed as a ‘learning process’:

1)   Focus: the innovation leader agrees with senior management a promising area for innovation towards the new strategic intent (for instance deodorants in Africa)

2)   Insight: the innovation leader identifies a small group of people (inside and outside the company) that can help him/her develop a better understanding of the innovation opportunity, and works with them to develop a deep understanding of the opportunity ahead.  This process will eventually lead to the kick-off of the community through the development of the key insights.

3)   Invent: with selected number of experts and free thinkers to develop the first ‘concepts for action’.

4)   Create: Develop opportunities.

5)   Execute: Implement the most promising options and track the success

At each point of the learning process the innovation leader needs to be closely aligned with senior management to create the room to invent, create and execute, and at the same time build a community that may potentially develop innovations that may fundamentally change the company! Balancing that tension requires courage and perseverance

Posted in english, innovation, leadership, Organization Development, sociology | Leave a comment

Stuart Kauffmann’s blog about the adjacent possible

Posted in innovation | Leave a comment

Duurzame innovatie of: ‘the adjacent possible’

Radicaal in kleine stapjes

Biologische systemen overleven door innovatief in te spelen op een veranderende context volgens het mechanisme van ‘the adjacent possible’: stapje-voor-stapje.

Stuart Kauffman, de bedenker van de term, schreef: als je een vat met 1000 verschillende chemische verbindingen hebt (the actual), dan is de biologische ‘adjacent possible’ de situatie waarin alle 1000 verbindingen precies 1 chemische reactie hebben ondergaan. En de grap van de adjacent possible is ook nog, dat de ontstane situatie weer een heleboel nieuwe adjacent possibles heeft, en de volgende weer, enzovoort, enzovoort.

In essentie gaat duurzaamheid over het aanpassen van ons systeem aan de snel veranderende populatie en welvaart in de wereld. Mijn stelling: een duurzaamheidsagenda is gebaat bij het biologische innovatie principe van de adjacent possible.

Continue reading

Posted in duurzaamheid, innovatie, innovation, nederlands | Leave a comment

Stretching the balance in a running business

I just finished a white paper on the innovation leadership model that I use when I help companies unlock their innovation potential. Enjoy the read!

Stretching the Balance in a Running Company

Posted in innovation | Leave a comment

Eurovisie succes als graadmeter van Nederlands Innovatie Klimaat?

Waarschijnlijk ligt u niet dagelijks wakker van de Nederlandse track record bij het Eurovisie Songfestival. Toch is het interessant om de totstandkoming van de Nederlandse inzending eens nader te bekijken. Ik zie namelijk verontrustende overeenkomsten met het vaderlandse innovatie beleid.

Achteraf bezien is het misschien niet zo verbazingwekkend dat een door ervaren mannen van de TROS in elkaar gedraaide Volendamse show niet in de smaak valt bij de gemiddelde Oost-Europese medemens. Maar waarom denken we dan een gelijksoortig process wel tot een vruchtbaar innovatieklimaat kan leiden?

Ik zag zelf drie overduidelijke parallellen, die ik zou willen ombuigen in een aanbeveling voor Songfestival en Innovatiebeleid:


Eurovisie: ‘Het belangrijkste is de muziek, en die nieuwe landen zijn daar nog niet professioneel mee bezit’. In ons hart vinden we namelijk dat mensen uit Moldavie of Azerbeidjan een verschrikkelijke muzieksmaak hebben en dat een saai liedje veel hoogstaander is dan een act met puntige hoeden of mooie mevrouwen.

Innovatie: ‘Chinezen en Indiers hebben wel veel geld en een boel slimme koppen, maar hun cultuur en onderwijssystemen maken het moeilijk om innovatief te zijn’. We kunnen niet echt geloven dat we onze vooraanstaande positie in wetenschap en technologie aan het kwijtraken zijn.


Eurovisie: TROS-Volendam-Jan Smit klinkt meer als een broeierige inteelt dan als een vruchtbare bodem voor vernieuwende inspiratie. .

Innovatie: Het smoelwerk van het Nederlandse Industriebeleid zijn de ‘wijze mannen van Verhagen’, gelauwerde industrielen van een jaar of 60 die hun sporen hebben verdiend in een tijd dat we nog wisten hoe de wereld in elkaar zat. Nederlandse universiteiten en onderzoeksinstituten worden ook gedomineerd door Nederlandse mannen – om daar een vaste aanstelling te krijgen is het van het grootste belang dat je deel uitmaakt van hun netwerk.


Eurovisie In de waan van de maakbaarheid van succes worden er lijstjes gemaakt van elementen waar de show aan moet voldoen. Het liedje lijkt een ‘afterthought’ en voor een authentiek geluid is geen plaats.

Innovatie Ook hier wemelt het lijstjes: aandachtsgebieden , speerpunten, groeiregio’s, kerntaken. De aandacht voor de ontwikkeling van vaklieden, beta-wetenschappers en een vruchtbaar onderzoeksklimaat lijkt een plichtpleging.  Maar waar moeten die geniale producten dan vandaan komen?

Aanbevelingen (Voor zowel Eurovisie als Innovatie beleid):

Neem je concurrentie serieus. Ondersteun mensen die een vak willen leren en daar in, op hun eigen manier, willen uitblinken. Focus niet op het eindresultaat (dat is toch niet maakbaar) maar stimuleer kruisbestuiving, ontdekking en ontwikkeling. En, zet gelauwerde heren in als klankbord, maar niet als wegbereiders van succes in een snel veranderende wereld.

Posted in innovation | Leave a comment

The innovation playing field

The playing field of the innovation leader

To understand the political playing field of the innovation leader, I draw on the Vita Activa (see Post below) and define the innovation field by the three fundamentally different activities of a running company:

Daily business’ : the primary, circular, organic process of buying, producing, selling and buying again (‘ labor’). The energy of the ‘Daily Business’ is conservation.

Management: targets, projects, organizational structures and excellent processes (‘work’).  The energy within ‘Management’ is focused on delivery and achievement.

Innovation Initiatives: any project that is new to the company and has an uncertain outcome (‘action’). The energy of ‘Innovation Initiatives’ is the spark of ideation and invention.

These three modes are not isolated into one or more functions within the company. They are present anywhere, but the ratios may differ. For instance ‘Daily Business’ may be dominant on the shop floor, while ‘Management’ will be strongly present in Headquarters. In some companies, ‘Innovation Initiatives’ are abundant in R&D or Engineering Departments, but in other companies they are more obvious in Sales or maybe even on the Factory Floor.

The Innovation leader on the playing field

An innovative initiative can only ever have an impact on the running company if its leader dares to take position on the intersection between the three anchor points of the innovation playing field. This observation may sound straightforward at first, but in practice, it turns out that most innovation leaders tend to foster the shelter of one of the conditions instead of trying to stretch the balance between the three.

Examples of shelter

Innovation Initiatives: The observation that daily business and processes hamper the innovative spirit within the company may lead innovation leaders towards the shelter of the ‘new and revolutionary’. Some claim that the bureaucratic processes hamper the ideation and creativity within their teams, and focus on ‘venturing’ opportunities and spin-outs to turn the innovative ideas into reality. Others may choose to invest in opportunities that have little to do with the core-business of the mother company. Such efforts may become successful by themselves, but don’t innovate the original company.

Management: Well-managed companies like smooth processes and predictable projects. The popularity of the leader of the R&D Department with his business peers will rise if he makes innovation processes more transparent and better ‘manageable’. Once he has found the ‘safe haven’ of innovation management tools, the same R&D VP may find it difficult to keep the connection with ideation and the nerdy world of technological discussions.

Daily Business: The core of the business is it’s primary process. Innovation projects that are well aligned with existing product lines, sales channels or internal expertise will often have shorter payback times than initiatives that are more stretching to the core. In view of their career, many marketing and innovation directors choose for ‘incremental innovation’ rather than venturing a more radical idea.

On Finding and Fostering ‘hooks for innovation’ in the running business

To tap into the true innovative capability of the running company, the innovation leader will need to take the initiative from the shelter and connect to the other two conditions. How can he do that? First of all, the leader of the innovation needs to understand where he is positioned – which shelter has he chosen?

Secondly, the nature of each condition may help to find hooks to pull the innovation forward. Let’s have a closer look at the three anchor points of the innovation playing field to identify the appropriate ‘tactics’ to connect:

The ‘Daily Business’ is about the company’s primary process, the core business and key competencies.  This circular energy is probably the most powerful source of resistance to innovation, as it is related to firmly held believes, unwritten rules, age-old patterns, the norms and identity of the company. At the same time, the daily business is also the basis of a sustainable company. To break the logic of the ‘appropriate’, the innovation leader will need to find ways to lure people into experimenting with new ways of working, to develop fresh perspectives and to ask questions about their long-held sense of reality. Challenging long-held believes and identities does not make popular and can only be done by highly-regarded opinion leaders. By questioning the norms of the company, the innovation leader deliberately runs the risk of ‘being expelled’.

“Innovation in a running business is a lot like finding the delicate balance in a yoga-pose”  (My yoga-teacher). Some companies have innovated very successfully by stretching the ‘adjacent possible’.  A nice example is the Dutch newspaper NRC, who launched NRC Next, the ‘young alternative for the Web-savvy generation’ which uses 60% of the content of the existing newspaper. The recent flop of the Flip-camera for Cisco may well be related to an innovation effort that ‘stretched a bit too far’.

‘Management’ is about hierarchy, structure and processes. Innovation does not exist for management as long as it is not resourced, led and planned. To connect, the innovation will need to become visible. Many inventors feel uncomfortable with the management dimension of innovation leadership, and may call the processes bureaucratic and loathe the political ‘games’ at play. The reality is that management is present in every running company, even within companies that have a terrific track record in innovation, like Google or Apple. Successful innovation leaders master this political game.

‘Innovation leadership requires the combination of deep understanding of the invention and the lateral ability to spot opportunities within the decision-making bodies within and around the company. In our company, leaders develop this aptitude by moving between various expatriate assignments’ (A befriended VP of a tech firm)

‘Innovation Initiatives’ are about new ideas, and great ideas only grow in fertile communities of experts with freedom to connect and disagree.  Companies can have great rhetoric about innovation intents, but if they cannot create lively communities through which ideas and knowledge can cross-fertilize, I would not like to put my bets on their sustainable future. Innovation leaders will need to find ways to make ideation part of normal business, and help innovators develop new ideas into tangible business proposals.

‘Developing the next generation equipment is really hard for us now that we had to let go more than half of our R&D staff. Our remaining R&D people work closely with the developers in the supplier companies, but the organic cross-fertilization between expertise areas has gone’ (Technology Application Director)

Posted in innovation | Leave a comment



In her main work ‘The Human Condition’, Arendt builds on the thinking of Aristotle and describes the ‘VITA ACTIVA’ as the three distinct ‘active human conditions’:

Labor – life itself – the continuity of seeding, growing, harvesting, feeding, biology, or in modern times – consumption.

Work – stands for mortality- through work we erect an  ‘artificial’ world through the creation of immortal structures.

Action – natality – the ability to start something new through action and speech. Action is always political – by acting we distinguish ourselves – we show our true identity.

The ability to Act, is what makes us human. According to Arendt, Acting is always political. Starting something new in your private life is not acting. Every single individual has the right to act as long as he ‘speaks’ about it. But ‘To Act’ requires insight and great courage. Running processes and structures make it difficult to reflect and make up your own mind.  In a democracy, the ‘power of the many’ renders it very difficult to act. The one who dares to act deliberately takes the risk to become a ‘paria’.

Posted in innovation | Leave a comment