Jan 4, 2023


by Jim Thompson

Survival of the Fittest: Embracing and Thriving While Re-Imagining Everything

This updated article was originally published on 9/20/20.

As individuals and organizations, how do we balance who we are and what we’ve historically been known for with the urgencies of now and the musts of tomorrow? If you haven’t given it thought, you’re already irrelevant.

For organizations to survive in an “innovate or die” world, it’s becoming imperative to master current demands while anticipating and planning for future innovation. New technologies are disrupting industries faster than ever before, and we’re faced with finding a balance between thriving in the now and continuously reinventing ourselves and our organizations. Those who survive are agile and adaptable, with ultimate success depending on how comfortable we are stretching ourselves in new, uncomfortable, and disruptive ways while adjusting to rapid change.

Think like a start-up

Action over research, and testing over analysis; coming up with quick ideas and rapid testing to make sure those ideas bring the value necessary to push things forward.

As organizations evolve, a common theme is that we need dreamers and doers at the same time. Sarah Ban Breathnach sums this sentiment up nicely by saying, “The world needs dreamers and doers, but above all, the world needs dreamers who do.”

It’s thinking like a start-up. Action over research and testing over analysis; coming up with quick ideas and rapid testing to make sure those ideas bring the value necessary to push things forward.

Educator Sir Ken Robinson talks about the differentiation in terminology where imaginationwhat we all think about creatively, the ideas that pop into our headscan make us feel like we have this wonderful thing that we can do. He goes on to say, however, that creativity is when you craft something new with that imagination. There is important distinction beyond imagination and creativityinnovation means you do something that has value in the marketplace.

Innovation is not easy

In his book The Three Box Solution, Vijay Govindarajan talks about the balance of simultaneously managing and optimizing what an organization does today with the imperatives of what needs to happen for tomorrow. He shows this in three principles he calls the Three Box Solution.

One of his principles—or boxes—is Manage the Present, which refers to how we optimize what we do today. How do we become better, faster and cheaper with the opportunity and workload that we have today? Simultaneously, we need to think about how we selectively abandon things that are no longer valid or are losing value in the marketplace while investing in another boxCreate the Future. The world is changing so fast that it is increasingly important to consider these boxes with respect to our own businesses and the imperative to innovate or die.

Govindarajan’s balances his logic with three traps that prevent innovation.

  • Complacency Trap
    The complacency trap is where the future is shrouded in a fog of misplaced confidence and understanding as to what’s happening today and how things are exponentially changing around us.
  • Cannibalization Trap
    The second trap is the cannibalization trap where leaders are persuaded that new business models based on nonlinear ideas will jeopardize the firm’s present prosperity. As Steve Jobs once said, “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.”
  • Competency Trap
    The final trap is the competency trap. This “arises when positive results in the current business encourage the organization to invest in core competencies and provide little incentive for investing in new [age] and future-oriented competencies; employees skills reflect the company’s legacy success.” It becomes about managing past success and not acknowledging or realizing how significantly the world is changing.

Comfort vs discomfort

The inability to see the future, of misplaced confidence, of looking inward verses outward and challenging what may be, are the competencies of the future. What has become the comfort zone of many organizations is a lack of understanding change. We may not know with certainty what is in front of us, but we need to feel uncomfortable in order to find a way to progress; to define our stretch zone.

There is risk and a fallacy that thinking innovatively is thinking about “the next big thing.” The next big thing does not necessarily have to be big or even a thing. It can be a service. It may not be next either—it may be later. Rather than always thinking of mega innovations, we should recognize that a small, incremental moment can be extremely beneficial.

Two sides to the innovation coin

Innovation cultures and organizations are depicted as “fun” because there is a willingness to experiment, to step out of bounds, and have a tolerance for failure. These organizations are psychologically safe, highly collaborative, and non-hierarchical. While there is tolerance for failure, there is little tolerance for incompetence. They also have rails to maintain a true path forward—highly disciplined people with a willingness to experiment, a psychologically safe culture that manages unflinching candor in its quest to be agile with a velocity towards remarkable solutions, highly collaborative dynamics with individual accountability, and a flat non-hierarchical organization with strong leadership.

Some of the most touted innovators have had their share of failures: Apple’s MobileMe, Google Glass and Amazon’s Fire Phone. While they have all had more successes than failures, it is these failures that inform a culture of dreamers as doers, action over research, and testing over analysis.

Innovative organizations set exceptionally high standards for their people. There is no tolerance for incompetence. Amazon, for example, ranks on a forced curve where the bottom 10% of low to non-performers are culled. Google, one of the hardest places to get a job—2 million applications for 5,000 positions, or odds of 400/1—adopts a different strategy. When someone is not succeeding in their current role, a performance management system moves them into a new role that may be a better fit for their skillset.

Almost anything can be justified without discipline, so it’s critical that clear criteria is established and applied when deciding to move an idea forward, modify or kill it. Disciplined experimentation makes it less risky to try new things and learn from those things that did not work.

Unflinching candor is imperative

Innovation can be crushed if people are afraid to constructively criticize, openly challenge superiors’ views, debate ideas of others, and raise counter perspectives. It’s a two-way street, and the candid organization will outperform the nice one every time.

Too often being highly collaborative gets confused with consensus. Consensus is poison for rapid decision making. Accountability to one another and feeling safe to share and have ownership can be truly transformational for a culture, enabling it to pivot quickly and move in meaningful, new directions.

Accountability and collaboration can be complementary, and accountability can drive collaboration. You own the decision you make, for better or for worse. The last thing you would do is shut yourself off from feedback or from enlisting the cooperation and collaboration of people inside and outside the organization that can help you.

Strong leadership in culturally flat organizations gives people wide latitude to act and make decisions as well as voice their opinions. In times like these, we need leadership at all levels and be prepared to step aside as other voices come to the table. Doing so allows an organization to realize and capitalize on the potential of nontraditional leaders.

Create an innovation biome

How do we create this transformative engine? In his book The Innovation Biome, Kumar Mehta talks about the biome as a place that provides the settings and conditions that determine what flourishes and what dies. How is this mirrored in a corporate environment when the goal is to make “innovation a replicable and consistent activity?” By creating an ecosystem that offers these conditions through leadership, the role of the individual, and cultural place, among others. A place where teams are innovative with committed leaders and leaders are innovative in sharing a vision. The case is made in Mehta’s book that the overall process toward innovation fails if any one of these is lacking, begging the question of how we all can have a role in the innovation process.

Solving real needs is about bringing value to the marketplace. Zoom being the most downloaded app in the world went beyond delivering the value of digital connection; it created specific features for educators because they understand how educators work. The value was born by listening to a group of potential users and tweaking the tool to make it better for them.

Three types of innovation

Experiential Innovation is about changing our lives, how we do business, and how we engage one another.

Three types of innovation drive how we approach what we do.

  • Incremental Innovation is what we do every day, and every day we get a little better at it.
  • Breakthrough Innovation is when we shift the mindset of the marketplace, which is where we get the likes of Apple. Breakthrough Innovation allows Experiential Innovation to occur.
  • Experiential Innovation is about changing our lives, how we do business, and how we engage one another.

The attributes of innovation start first with priming yourself and your company to be ready for that moment when that learning or that knowledge can be applicable to a problem. Crowdsourcing flourishes in such a continuous learning environment, where questions live in a space (whiteboards or digital) and answers can be shared in real time by anyone for all to see and to learn from. Brainwriting through technologies like GroupMap and Miro also facilitate the continuous sharing of ideas by replacing traditional brainstorming with the ability to virtually write thoughts to questions that are posed.

Another attribute of innovation is acceptance and not falling into the trap of Kodak, who doubled down on their core business filminstead of accepting digital technologies (even when they had invented the technology). In networked developments, things don’t happen in silos. A great example is the idea of transdisciplinary, which is an interconnectivity across disciplines. Challenges of innovation may be better solved with a transdisciplinary mindset instead of a disciplinary approach.

Clustering value creates and supports the ecosystem for innovation to flourish. A great example of this is Tesla. The advent of their electric car battery drove an ecosystem of charging stations across the US, which are becoming much more than that (restaurants or stores, for example). What started as an innovation with a battery has broader repercussions as one starts to scale the innovation up.

View our Beyond Workplace book on Issuu here.


Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson: design addict, voracious reader, artist, collector, historian, teacher, father of 3. When at his day job leading design at Little, Jim is at the crossroads of strategic thinking, research, education and design and how this leads, informs and creates meaning in the built environment. In other words: do, say and make something that matters!

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