Organizations today expect much more innovation from their employees than they did yesterday and will expect even more tomorrow. And not just technology innovation, but innovative products, services, processes, strategies, leadership styles, organizational designs, and more. This means that innovation isn’t just another function we can bolt on to our current role. It is a different way of thinking about our jobs. Unfortunately, most of us are poorly prepared for a shift of this magnitude.
Regardless of career path, we all passed through a common set of stages on our way to becoming experienced and successful professionals. And at each step we employed a common approach to building competency: functional decomposition.
Mastery – In the beginning our learning was focused on mastery. Our goal was to learn and understand our field. There was so much to learn we couldn’t get our arms around it all at once. So to keep from being overwhelmed we broke the work down into elements we could master one at a time. This decomposition strategy worked well and we still use it today when confronted with large amounts of new information.
Efficiency – As we gained expertise in our profession, we shifted our focus to efficiency – doing things better. Here the skill we needed was to understand the process we followed. Again we applied decomposition to break larger processes into a number of smaller steps so we could focus our improvement where it had the greatest return.
Effectiveness – Once we mastered the basics and understood how to execute with efficiency the next step was effectiveness – making sure we were applying our skills to the right problem in the right way. Here it was important to understand the organization’s goals and expectations. As broad goals came down from the top of the organization we decomposed them into smaller elements that fit into our scope of responsibility.
Our success has been built largely on our ability to decompose larger, higher level problems into smaller elements so we can deal with a simpler challenge. Innovation, however, requires a totally different approach: aggregation. Many of today’s problems can’t be solved by breaking them down into discrete components. They require a thorough understanding of the larger context and available resources. Innovative solutions more often come from the aggregation of complete systems in new ways to create unique value. Here are a couple of examples:
Mergers and Acquisitions – Historically, mergers and acquisitions were founded on economies of scale, bringing together organizations with the same set of capabilities, performing largely the same processes and creating value by lowering operational costs. Today, mergers and acquisitions are more likely to be focused on bringing together companies that have totally different business models creating value by finding the synergy among their different capabilities.
Social – Technology innovations today are also more about combining together capabilities from different companies. My Starbucks iPhone app is a good example. It combines the Starbucks’ store information database with the phone’s GPS system and Google Maps to create a simple but powerful application that helps me find the nearest open store.
To survive and thrive in this new world requires a different type of thinking. While functional decomposition continues to work well for fixing broken systems, innovation is more likely to come from aggregating capabilities from disparate systems, organizations, companies, and technologies.