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How do you become an innovation architect? Just imagine!
Imagine children playing. Notice that they invent the rules as they go along, that imagination is their reality, and that there are no boundaries to what is possible.

Now imagine your next management meeting. Notice the rules, the rituals, and the application of what you already know in order to keep things more or less the same.

Real-world conditions justifiably differ from those of the imaginary world – or do they really? Survival in the innovation economy actually requires these two worlds to work in tandem like never before.

At what point do we switch from imagination to reality? This question is at the heart of the current innovation revolution in society, business, governments and even personal reinvention. Albert Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge because knowledge sets boundaries to what we are able to do. Managing this tension between imagination and reality is what separates today’s winners from the losers. Economist Joseph Schumpeter called innovation creative destruction. This happens in products offered, how these are delivered to current and new markets, how resources are accessed and used, and how all of these are configured. Today we see companies being destroyed through creative destruction by incoming technologies and players who have realised that this is a new game requiring new rules. Some call this the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and predict that exponential growth in scientific and technological advancement will challenge everything that we have come to take for granted in an industrial age paradigm where managers lived in a more predictable and controllable landscape and success belonged to those who could apply proven recipes. 

Nobel laureate Robert Solow suggests that up to 80% of economic growth can be traced back to technological innovation, which allowed the producers of wealth to deliver more, faster, from available resources. Management sciences would focus on economies of scale, efficiency and specialisation. People were employed to fit a predefined box called a job description and were rewarded for meeting pre-defined targets using pre-defined metrics. Unfortunately for many, much of what the world’s most successful companies accomplish today no longer fit industrial economy paradigms. Even the ‘knowledge is power’ paradigm is being challenged. Knowledge is now available to anyone, and the game is shifting from having knowledge to what you do with knowledge to create a world that does not exist yet.  Increasingly the game winners are those who can vividly imagine and realise visionary futures to create the next competitive advantage with backing from their stakeholders. 

In 2002 innovation thought leader Clayton Christensen called innovation the new science of success. Thomas Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions may explain where innovation finds itself today, i.e. as an emerging management science getting ready to assist managers to cause innovation outcomes based on grounded theory. Scientific revolutions coincide with paradigm shifts when new observations no longer fit ‘primitive resemblance criteria’, when previously acquired boundaries become excessively narrow, and when new observations demand some adjustment in such boundaries. Kuhn’s normal science in Figure 1 has an established base of reference materials and practices for puzzle solving within a particular paradigm. Anomalies occur that do not fit this paradigm, resulting in a crisis, a change in world view, and a revolution, before a new science paradigm is established. 

fourth industrial revolution forces.JPG
Kuhn’s revolution phase is an anarchy period characterised by competing concepts and unguided fact-finding. Is this not where we are at the moment, with one after another discipline claiming ownership while trying to establish the new paradigm? To bring about a new innovation management paradigm, new science routines are required before the revolution becomes invisible and silo-centric posturing is superseded by a new normal way of causing desired innovation for particular contexts.

Innovation architecture is beginning to surface in publications and at business schools to help management to balance the two worlds of imagination and reality. But be cautious before you buy an off-the-shelf innovation architecture toolkit and implement it in an environment which may not be conducive to innovation. Architects apply imagination to design buildings that meet functional requirements and appeal aesthetically to stakeholders in a particular space and context by reconfiguring existing building materials. 

Surveys show that most managers lack the know-how, skills and infrastructure for innovation success. While waiting for management scientists to establish the paradigm, consider these building blocks from a fast-growing scholarly innovation knowledge base:

  • Purpose – figure out what you are trying to achieve with innovation and why you wish to gain a systemic understanding of creative destruction in your big picture. Wicked problems differ from tame problems and require different innovation architectures.
  • Observe from an improvement mindset – look at the world through new lenses to see what new possibilities can come from 4IR forces. Thomas Edison used to say “I never pick up an item without thinking of how I might improve it.” Adopt other innovation habits and you will soon see habits shaping innovation in offerings and their delivery to current and new markets, resources and new configurations.
  • Create a high-trust participative environment in which diversity is embraced as source of new thinking to sense, seize and realise new possibilities. Unleash multidisciplinary solution platforms beyond what your current disciplines are likely to give you – not conventional committees.
  • Design solutions for stakeholder benefit and fit – early buy-in may reduce your risk downstream.
  • Empower leaders to let go of irrelevant rules and knowledge that prevent you from seeing and realising a world that does not yet exist.
  • Focus on value creation and realisation – know what is value for you and others involved.
  • Learn and celebrate.
The difference between what can be imagined and what can be accomplished has never been smaller than today. There is a reason why the World Economic Forum sees creativity as one of the top three skills by 2020. In your role as a leader, become an innovation architect and use the collective genius of others to imagine and realise innovation futures.

Awie Vlok lectures innovation management at under- and postgraduate level. His doctoral research is on technology innovation leaders and, as founding member of Innostrat, he assists clients with innovation strategies and leadership. His international innovation experience spans automotive, ICT and multidisciplinary research and technology domains.

If you enjoyed this article you should not miss the Learning Innovation Africa Conference to be held in Johannesburg in September. This conference – which promises to turn conventional conferencing on its head – will bring you up to speed on all aspects of next-generation learning, from flipped classrooms to gamification – and more.  

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