This is the Red Queen, one of the famous characters in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. And whilst she is an undoubtedly intriguing person, someone you might want to get to know better, here’s a word of advice. Don't try playing chess with her – you’ll very soon find yourself out of your depth!

There are three problems you’ll have to confront if you do decide you'd like to give it a go. First, she keeps changing the rules, arbitrarily making them up as she goes along. Second, she keeps changing the game – you might think you are playing chess but might suddenly decide to switch it to football or horse racing! And, as if these are not enough, she also lives in a world where this kind of behavior is perfectly normal!

In fact Looking Glass world is a pretty scary place – as Alice found out when trying to have a conversation with the Red Queen. Having run very fast she finally manages to catch up with the Queen and has the following famous exchange. "Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

It’s a powerful metaphor for the innovation world we’re trying to work in today. You don't have to look far to see that this is a game where simply recognizing that we need to change what we offer, and how we create and deliver it, isn’t going to be enough.  We’ve also got to have the ability to step back and reconfigure our approaches to doing so as the game shifts and the rules change beneath our feet.

The good news is that we have plenty of research and experience to draw upon in trying to manage innovation. The bad news is that this won’t be enough – we also need to constantly update the models and frameworks which we use. We need ‘innovation model innovation’. (We don’t have to look too far to see examples of once proud innovative organizations whose models somehow ran out of relevance as they crashed into Looking Glass world – think Kodak, Blockbuster, Borders, British Home Stores, add your own to the list ……)

Here’s a simple map of the innovation world in which we’re trying to work. On the left hand side the world behaves more or less as we hoped, the rules of the game are clear, we know who the other players are and what we have to do in order to win.  This is the world in which our established models of innovation work well – stage gate systems, disciplined project management, portfolio management, big bet R&D, etc.

But on the right hand side it’s Looking Glass world.  We don’t know the game, we are often still trying to work out who is playing and 'winning’ strategies aren't clear, they emerge as a result of interacting with the different players. It’s a complex adaptive system – and one in which we need very different approaches to innovation management.

Fortunately we have some clues – from areas like complexity theory and, more importantly, from the world of practice and experiment. Working in Looking Glass world needs to build on some core principles:

Variety matching

  • Mobilize as many minds as possible, build on diverse inputs, harness networks and make new links. Dealing with a complex world requires as many ideas as possible.  Back in the 17th century the British navy had a rather embarrassing problem – it kept losing its ships. They got lost because they were unable to navigate accurately; they could measure latitude but their attempts to calculate longitude were frustrated by the lack of a reliable timepiece. Eventually the Admiralty (with the sponsorship of the King) offered a prize (worth around $10m today) for anyone who could come up with a reliable portable chronometer. All sorts of ideas emerged and eventually John Harrison’s winning entry (now on display in Greenwich Naval Museum in London) was adopted; an early example of an innovation contest. But these days you don’t need to have the backing of the King or a huge organizational team; we can set up an innovation contest in an afternoon and tap into hundreds of creative minds.
  • Importantly using such tools isn’t a substitute for doing the hard thinking work ourselves. In studies on what has come to be known as ‘broadcast search’ Karim Lakhani and colleagues have shown that smart organizations use such approaches to amplify the variety of solution ideas; the wider you cast the net the more different insights into your problem you are likely to catch.

Work with emergence

  • If the game is co-evolving then we need to make sure we are in the game, in there early and in there actively. Entrepreneurs specialise in working in the ‘fluid’ phase of innovation, where everything is up for grabs. The technologies they are playing with are still maturing, the markets they want to serve are undefined, the precise combination of needs and means still to emerge. It’s easy with hindsight to see the ‘dominant design’ but on the other side of this lens is a world of uncertain experimentation in which disruptive ideas emerge slowly and from within a crucible of multiple possibilities.
  • Take the case of Devi Shetty, one of a group of pioneer innovator/doctors who have been working to develop radical alternatives to the problem of healthcare in India – a context marked by severe limits on financial resources, skills availability and overall infrastructure. Their models offer the ‘Holy Grail’ of low cost, reliable healthcare without compromising on safety or quality; typically costs are a fraction of those found in equivalent activities in Western hospitals yet they are achieved with safety and quality levels often amongst the very best in the world. And this isn’t just ‘cherry picking’ simple procedures; ‘frugal’ healthcare models now cover procedures ranging from cataract surgery (the Aravind Eye care system is now the biggest in the world, treating millions every year) through to complex paediatric heart by-pass surgery. At the heart of these innovations is entrepreneurial experimentation, learning and interaction in a challenging new context. 

Co-create in context

  • User insights matter both at the front end of innovation (providing new ideas and insights) and downstream (where their inputs help shape innovation which fit the user’s world) to ensure widespread adoption and diffusion. We’re learning a great deal about tools and techniques to help enable this ‘co-creation’ – for example by providing platforms for experimentation and sharing. In the wake of the Haiti earthquake where so much of the city of Port-au-Prince was destroyed humanitarian efforts were massively aided by user-developed innovations running across mobile phones. Apps emerged to connect displaced people and reunite families, to map problem areas and re-enable transportation, to distribute emergency cash to enable access to food and medicines, to co-ordinate relief efforts – all developed by users in the context of their crisis and with the special knowledge they had of their particular needs.

Probe and learn

  • The new game needs new approaches based on experiments, multiple fast and intelligent failures, learning through entrepreneurial exploration. We’re learning that such ‘agile’ approaches are relevant far beyond the tricky world of the ‘lean start-up’; they represent a philosophy of probe and learn. The continuing success of Pixar as one of the world’s most creative and consistent animation studios is not the result of luck but an approach which puts ‘managed failure’ and learning at its heart.

This raises an important question...

  • If prototypes are important as ‘boundary objects’ around which we can learn and co-create, then how and where can this kind of experimentation take place? The growing role of ‘boundary spaces’ – whether they are called ‘fab-labs’, ‘maker spaces’ or ‘boot camps’ – is an important signal that we need to develop the ‘technology’ for supporting probe and learn. The giant Chinese white goods maker, Haier, for example, is making use of local maker spaces to source interesting and novel ideas for a wide range of its products whilst others (like pharmaceutical giant Merck or car-maker BMW) are hosting entrepreneur boot camp events to stretch their own approaches to innovation.

Working in the complex space of ‘Looking Glass’ world also needs to make full use of the ‘complexity toolkit’. We can now access a variety of tools for thinking and engaging users, working with emergence, accessing diverse inputs and integrating them fast and iteratively. These can range from ‘soft’ methods like design thinking through to powerful software support for building and working with active interactive innovation communities.

Finally there is the challenge of ‘ambidexterity’ – learning to bridge between these two very different worlds. The innovation models which support the left hand side of our picture keep the engine running, driving along well-established highways. The right hand side is unexplored jungle, rocky mountainous terrain, hard to navigate swamps – places where we need the above very different approaches. But at some point we need to bridge between these two worlds, turning opportunities discovered on the right into workable, sustainable ways of creating value.

Watch John Bessant's talk from the HYPE Innovation Managers Forum:


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