Innovation has never been more important and it is often harder than it seems. They offer practical tools that combine the best of agile innovation with the power of systems thinking to deliver a step change in innovation effectiveness.
We are in conversation with Jennifer Wilde, director head of Innovative Ecosystem. Let’s find our more!
1. When did you first set out to make an impact on innovation?
For both of us, this has been a journey rooted in necessity. We have each been drawn to complex, messy challenges that push the boundaries of innovation.
Dan’s first job was in an industry undergoing massive restructuring because of deregulation. At the same time, Jenny has spent years on the ground in crisis-torn areas, leading efforts to respond to humanitarian needs.
These complex challenges can’t be addressed with incremental improvements or a new mobile app in both cases.
We began as practitioners, trying to push the bounds of what innovation could do because we wanted to work on challenges that could make a difference in the success of a business or the quality of people’s lives.
For Dan, that’s been a 40-year journey that has led from one messy challenge to another. For Jenny, it led to setting up an international network of humanitarian innovation labs. In both cases, doing more with innovation was necessary if we wanted to take on these urgent real-life challenges.
2. Why is Innovation Ecosystem a company to watch?
Through decades of work in challenging contexts and on complex global and national challenges and opportunities, Dan and Jenny have pioneered the practice of system innovation. System innovation is a powerful form of innovation that can create high impact new business products and ways of working for significant real-life challenges.
From working with fortune 50 companies on new global products to local entrepreneurs who have scaled globally or national governments on business models for the country’s sustainability, System Innovation can create powerful innovations for complex opportunities.
3. What is System Innovation?
There are several distinct types of innovation. However, most people and leaders are familiar with creation.
Practices such as lean improvement programs or agile product development target smaller focused ideas. In contrast, system innovation takes on more significant, more complex challenges. A system innovator sees the world as a collection of Lego blocks that they can put together in ‘systems’ that make the world around them work in new ways.
What gives a system innovator creative power is that their ‘Lego’ blocks can be organizations, individuals, resources, or technology. They take all the wealth of capabilities and combine them to create incredible value for all the participants.
This assembling of high impact innovation enables significant, impactful change. For example, when Uber redefined the taxi business, they acted as system innovators that defined a new system for delivering rides. Likewise, when there was a 16,000% increase in telehealth services at the beginning of the pandemic, system innovators in medicine replaced traditional inperson health care with a new system that connected professionals, patients, and technology.
4. Why is it so crucial to the world right now?
System innovators are exceptionally well-positioned to deal with significant complex challenges that are both exciting and threatening in the coming decade of the Roaring 2020s. This is because system innovators intentionally change the way the world works. That might be at a small scale within a community, a broader scale within a business, or a truly global scale on challenges like climate change.
We live in a world where accelerating rates of change are increasingly making the status quo obsolete. Trying to cling to past ways of working is a recipe for disaster. A business that becomes obsolete because of disruption in its industry is not simply going to be less profitable, and it will be entirely swept away.
This is also important at a societal level. Poorly functioning systems that drive climate change, pandemic response, and social turmoil can overturn everything in our lives.
As individuals, business leaders, and societies, we need significant innovations to make an impact. If we can do bigger things with innovation, it will make threats more tractable and open the doors to doing bold things to improve our lives every day.
5. What can it be used to do?
When a business faces disruptive change in its market, system innovation makes it possible to do more than optimize its failing business model. An enterprise can use system innovation to reinvent its place in the market, delivering new forms of value, connecting with new partners, and working in new ways. They become the disruptor instead of the disrupted.
Activists working on pressing problems in communities or on a global scale need system innovation to deliver sustainable changes that shift the way things work. We’ve worked with a wide range of organizations seeking to make a more significant impact on issues like education or health, where solutions must engage a host of diverse actors.
System innovators are also well positioned to claim a new greenfield space. For example, the brilliance of Steve Jobs and the iPhone was not that he created a better phone but that he created an entirely new system for generating value. It was a ‘system’ that benefited Apple and engaged software developers, content producers, phone users, and many others in new ways.
6. Why is the Innovation Ecosystem different from others?
Over the last 25 years, there has been an overall growth in support of innovation. Still, much of this has been on narrowly focused work in optimizing existing operations (think Toyota’s total quality management) or developing new digital products and services (think IDEO).
These are valuable work areas, but they don’t position innovators for doing bigger things with more complex challenges.
That’s our area of focus. We help leaders and innovators deal with challenging problems, significant opportunities, disrupted markets, or scaling national or global products. We work with companies, governments and individuals to succeed in taking on more ambitious innovation work.
This focus on System Innovation practices is vital because each form of innovation is very different from other methodologies. You can’t successfully respond to a disrupted market or tackle a pandemic response with the same innovation tools and thinking that would be used for improving a business process or developing a new digital app. You might say we specialize in the art of doing more important things.
7. What are some of the benefits System Innovation can provide? Who should benefit from it?
Some people hear the word ‘system’ and assume that system innovation is only applicable to substantial global problems and change. While it’s true that system innovation is a powerful way to deal with that kind of problem, system innovation opportunities exist at every level. For example, a family business or social enterprise has systems that shape how successfully it works globally.
As a result, they will be able to benefit from thinking about how to shift and reimagine their challenges and opportunities.
Individual professionals find that they can explore new systems for how they work. For example, the shift to remote working has allowed us to put together project teams worldwide. That’s a new system for doing work that can impact us.
8. How does your Agile transformation process differ from traditional processes?
System innovation builds on many of the same techniques that innovators have applied in recent years. For example, we test and learn to be agile in response to new knowledge. System innovators also emphasize creativity, but instead of trying to fit ideas onto a Post-it note, we work to see how various moving parts fit together. We take a big picture of challenges and solutions, looking at a whole organization’s agility rather than just a specific part.
This big picture perspective embraces the complexity that other forms of transformation try to fence out. Because we see this whole challenge, we can tap additional creative power. For example, a company can bring in new partnerships and technology and use those new capabilities to create a different way of working together. This work also allows for ideas that can do more in areas where existing practices are falling short.
9. How is Innovation Ecosystem changing the world?
Our goal is to make system innovation a practice that leaders and innovators can call on when tackling urgent problems and significant opportunities. We’ve had a chance to help international activists develop climate change strategies worldwide, helped Fortune 100 businesses respond to disruptive market change, and support the design of innovative nutrition programs for mothers living in areas with food insecurity.
System innovation practices have been used in Mongolia to design health crisis response strategies and understand opportunities for future pandemic preparedness. This is exciting work. However, there’s so much more to do.
10. What does innovation ecosystem provide to help people innovate successfully?
We run consultancies worldwide that support entrepreneurs and companies to start and scale innovations, deal with specific challenges or opportunities, build their innovation teams and practices and support organizational transformation for agility.
We are currently writing a book published at the end of 2022, which outlines the approach to System Innovation and have courses and tools on our website innovationecosystem.com which individuals and organizations can use.
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