How to tilt the innovation playing field

Like it or not, the return on investment in innovation tends to be heavily concentrated in a much smaller number of wins than we expect – which thankfully turn out to be more valuable than we thought. These precious few are what we might call the “Black Swans”.

The random arrival of Black Swans

This is not a game of pure chance though: if we are prepared to change our approach, and better understand the nature of the game we are playing, we can actually do some things that improve our chances of success. We can tilt the playing field.

At first, some of these things will feel counterintuitive and wrong. To understand why these work you would need to have studied and explored the nature of the problem space you are playing in. This requires an understanding of the economics of flow (queues, WIP, batch sizes, etc) the nature of demand and supply (ideas and the ability to execute them). You would also need to understand the complexity of developing an idea and the semi-chaotic nature of a system than involves unpredictable humans and unpredictable ideas. So much of the thinking we have acquired, that has worked well in more simple arenas, will quickly get you into trouble in this new game.

Starting with an understanding, you can then start to experiment with a few “tilts” that make sense given the situation at hand, to discover what works for you, in your context. You could think of these tilts as a set of design criteria. This isn’t a framework that you implement. It’s not even a target future state, that you are working towards. How these tilts manifest in your organisation will probably be different, and almost certainly use different names than the ones in the sketch below. If we were to try and put what we’ve learned (from doing this in a number of organisations) into one massively oversimplified picture in the abstract form, it might look like this:



Here’s an example of how this approach has manifest in a number of organisations we’ve worked with. What isn’t very well represented in this more linear version is the discovery mindset and learning, which is critical…


Tilt the playing field – overview


Let’s just look at the left-hand side of this first: The upstream part, before anyone has written a line of code or started building anything…

Upstream Principles

Now let’s consider the right-hand side, where most of the learning and discovery happens…

Downstream Principles

Now clearly this needs additional words to explain. We’ll get to that another day though…

In the meantime, if you’re interested in hearing more about this, drop us a note.