Having taken a look at the products and services that you offer, it’s now time to look at how you gear to deliver change and innovation.
Essentially all of this is a response to a somewhat oxymoronic question I’ve been asked on a number of occasions over the years:
We want to be innovative. Can you show us someone who has done it before?
It sort of stumped me in the past, but I’ve realised now that I can help to express how people can go about things by taking analogous examples from the world outside of their immediate experience. I can show you people who’ve been innovative before. It’s just very unlikely that they do what you do, and your job is to interpret that inspiration.
And so it is with The Play Matrix which has been bouncing around in my work for the past three years. You can see an early iteration here:
Today it looks a little more like this:
We need to think of the world in the context of problems and solutions. Some of the problems are known, many are not. Some of the solutions to those problems are known, many are not. There are also solutions looking for a problem.
The world of large organisations is geared around known solutions. The things that you look at that surround you at the moment are probably a result of that approach. Scaled industrial organisations and processes are the application of known solutions to known problems on a repeated basis. This is what Adam Smith noted with pin-making and Henry Ford with automobiles. This Plan approach is incredibly useful and valuable. It’s also fairly hard to change.
The hackneyed business cliche “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!” is deep-rooted, though. And hence we have the “Follow” quadrant – often technological (although not exclusively) solutions to problems that don’t exist or aren’t identified. “Bring me some AI Blockchain!”
It’s easy to dismiss such activity, but it does have tangible value. If all of your competitors are ordering AI Blockchains, then to keep your brand value in your sector you too may need to chase that naked emperor. Just don’t expect anything particularly valuable to come from it in terms of actual innovation.
These two worlds of known solutions we will call the Engineering approaches. The application of things to solve problems, real or not, to deliver effectiveness and efficiency. Growth and scale.
Modern organisations are geared around Engineering approaches.
Where we don’t know the solution, however, things get tricker. We don’t often hear “Don’t bring me solutions, just tightly define the problem!” in managementspeak (even though we probably should).
When we know what the problem is, but aren’t sure or can’t be sure of the answer, we need adaptive approaches to find solutions. I deliberately avoid the use of the word “Agile” here because it’s so over-used and abused. But Agile methods can be a good example of Adaptive approaches. The only problem is that often they will be surrounded by Engineering Plan financial and governance models that predetermine outcomes in ways that kills any sense of agility.
Finally, there is a sensemaking function, where new ideas and technologies can be played with to see what opportunities they might open up. The ability for large scale organisations to Tinker like this is really hard. In old school R&D organisations, particularly with benign monopolies of old like the BBC or AT&T, it worked and some incredible innovation arose. These days most tinkering innovation by big organisations appears to come from acquisition, which significantly de-risks the activity.
There is a logical flow (whether it happens or not is another matter). Ideas that come out of Tinkering might feed into Adaptive processes that rapidly test the idea through prototyping and iteration until such time as when it can be scaled up to run through a planned engineering approach.
Organisations struggle to identify both when different styles are appropriate (I shudder when I hear “We are now completely agile”) or how to manage the transitions between quadrants. But ultimately anything in the bottom half Bricolage section is really hard in big organisations because that’s just not how they are designed to operate.