Innovation Architectures

6 Jul

Just finished reading “Innovation as Usual”, Miller and Wedell-Wedellsborg, so I thought I’d try something different and actually get round to writing up a few notes.  Firstly, they’ve got a website: so go and grab the book from there.

This book is slim. It’s got some really good ideas, and it says them concisely. You’ll not need to force people to keep reading it for weeks and weeks. I like that, already.

What’s the core idea? Getting a stream of new, good, effective ideas into a business is not as simple as asking for them. Sturgeon’s law (90% of anything is crap) applies. Most ideas are bad ideas. If you’re going to get a stream of good ideas, you’ll need to make sure that you have prepared the ground.

The book opens by defining innovation, and the Innovation Architect:

a person that makes other people innovate by changing the environment they work in.

(I’m already getting the warm and fuzzies.)

Innovation Architects, it seems, are most likely to be leaders in their businesses as well. Not necessarily the being at the top, but people taking a leadership role, setting a direction, trying to achieve things in a bigger picture. Leaders, of course, achieve their results by enabling other people to achieve great things, rather than necessarily doing them themselves. So if we’re going to have innovation in an organisation, it’s going to be organic (in the military sense: to the people delivering the work. Which means we’re going to need to make it easy for the potential of innovation to become real, useful innovation.

And to do this we have to make it easy to do the right kind of innovation – we have to put systems and support in place to make it normal, to make our people behave like innovators so that they are innovators.

At this point M&W bring in a framework: “the 5+1 keystone behaviours of innovation to promote in others”. Shameless quote:

  1. Focus on ideas that matter to the business
  2. Connect to the outside to find original ideas
  3. Tweak and challenge their initial ideas
  4. Select the best ideas and discard the rest
  5. Stealthstorm past the politics of innovation

+1: Persist in the pursuit of innovation as usual.

Let’s run through them in a little more detail.


Sonnets and haikus are a horribly restrictive way to write, but they produce brilliant gems of ideas. Constraining the domain of thought produces better thoughts. Odd. Interesting.

It’s easy to set up an “ideas funnel” and fill it with ideas you can’t do anything with. So set specific goals – “how do we decrease production cost by 40%?”.  Tell people what to focus on: “We don’t want new products this year. We’re focussing on delivering and improving the current ones”. Have some clear objectives, and provide some guidance. And, from time to time, change the focus to a different area/approach/activity – look at processes instead of products, say.


You won’t think of a brilliant way to make use of an idea from a different field if you never talk to anyone in a different field.  Make a space in the business where ideas from elsewhere can be found.

(There’s a great footnote in this section on the importance of implementing ideas, not having them.)

The key to getting lots of useful ideas is, apparently, recombinant innovation: seeing things in other areas and mixing them up. You need to be exposed to the actual problems, as well. Watch your customers, visit them, meet with them to analyze their problems. Really. Go sit in their offices. Listen to them. (There’s a maxim from sales about this: shut up and listen and people will tell you their problems.) Spend time with people you don’t normally meet with.

And, of course, you need to create some systems to share those ideas. Have people talk about things they’ve done and seen. Before any meeting, assign someone to bring something interesting.


No-one comes up with brilliant ideas at the beginning. So you’re going to have to change the ideas – to tweak them into ideas that can practically be applied! Test the idea, analyse it, throw up an MVP, get other people from the organisation to both challenge them and help improve them.

As you work on the idea, you’ll improve your understanding of the problem as well. That’s a vital part of the process. “Reframe the problem, and test the solution”. Check your assumptions about the problem space all the time. Write down the problem, run the Five Whys, work out what the person would describe the results they would pay for as. Then go and test the solutions. Quickly. Find a simple way to do so.

When doing this, you need to enable useful criticism. M+W give an example from Pixar, where directors show daily their work, and comments are made – but it is up to the directors what to do about the comments. You need strong critical thought to improve ideas, but it needs to be managed to get the improvement, not to score points or assert authority.


Sturgeon’s law again. But also cognitive biases – how do you support gatekeepers to effectively select the ideas without discarding really good ones? Probably, you need a fast filtering process to run on “normal” ideas, looking for quick wins, and a slow contemplative one to run on more subtle – or more disruptive – ideas. But you have to build a system here too.

You should be careful about who is a gatekeeper, you should have and review evaluation criteria, and you need to calibrate the gatekeeping process.

One technique is to “blind” the review process; another is to bring in people outside the “idea” to make these decisions. Having a mix of people involved in gatekeeping helps, as does reviewing the idea in context, rather than from slides.

An important part of the gatekeeping process is killing bad ideas fast – someone who knows their idea isn’t going to work and kills it for you is a wonder! It’s worth putting in place tangible deadlines and end-stops for projects, to prevent them proliferating endlessly – make them specific time-limited experiments, so they don’t become “the way we do things” – but make the deadlines generous. Get people to vote for keeping projects, not for killing them.


It’s an organisation. You have politics. You need to manage the development of the innovation  to avoid offending your culture or politics. Someone somewhere high up will need to be air cover. If you get this right, it becomes easier to do what you’re trying to do.

Help people establish networks within (and outside!) the company, so they can get support when trying new things. Ask for advice, not political capital. Make sure your innovation has a narrative – a story – because people will remember those. Show the value of the innovation as early as possible, and make the showing memorable and personal.

And the +1, Persist?

You need to set up the reward structures and culture around the organisation so people keep innovating, so people actually (as Kennedy said) “choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard”. But if you give people the opportunity and the support to work on the innovations they want to, they will.

So make sure people are doing things they want to be doing. Connect people with areas they are interested in – and get them to find ideas that only they could find. (But remind them to find ideas of potential value to the business!)

Autonomy is a big help in generating persistence: let people tackle problems they think  are more important and they care about, and let them do it in the way they think is most appropriate, and persistence will follow.

Make sure that there aren’t un-necessary barriers to the process, and look at external motivations – rewards – for innovation. The “fun” part of innovation is the first 1% – the rest of the process is hard work, and external motivation can help keep the focus then.

Innovators shouldn’t suffer for trying to innovate – either if their idea fails, or during the development of the idea. Innovation needs to be seen as a desirable part of the career path, not a risk or a trap.


So, that’s the framework reviewed. What do we do next? The Epilogue provides a quick kick up the behind, and sets some immediate actions:

  • Get started.
  • Make a simple, specific plan for immediate actions.
  • Get a supporter to work with you on this – even just as a sounding-board and reminder.
  • Run them through these ideas.
  • Find them now.

(Which is why I’ve just summarised the entire book for internal distribution to my colleagues)


One Response to “Innovation Architectures”


  1. Brevity | rdn32 - 2013/07/07

    […] immediate spur to write is this sentence, from Rich Walker’s review of “Innovation as Normal” by Paddy Miller and Thomas […]

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