Joseph Lampel looks at how to embed breakthrough thinking into business.
In a hyper-competitive world where strategic advantage is temporary if not ephemeral, creating breakthrough innovations has become the gold standard of organisational strategies. Today’s business managers not only seek to launch breakthrough innovations, but also (and more importantly) are keen to develop an organisational culture that fosters breakthrough thinking.
Inevitably, managers look to ‘celebrity firms’ such as Apple, Google, or Tesla for lessons on how to create such a culture. But in truth, one can find breakthrough thinking in many lesser-known companies, in high-tech sectors, not only from today, but also going all the way back to the industrial revolution.
Researchers have been looking at innovation and breakthrough thinking at least as far back as the 1960s, if not earlier. We now have a very large body of research, as well as multi-disciplinary institutions such as the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research (MIoIR) that have been expressly set up to understand the dynamics of innovation.
Many universities – including The University of Manchester – have used this accumulated research to introduce breakthrough innovation thinking into the undergraduate and graduate curriculum, and to engage in highly active executive education and outreach programmes.
Distilling the rich body of knowledge about how organisations develop breakthrough cultures into a set of principles is difficult. However, we can point to two areas that are proving increasingly crucial in the contemporary economy: connectivity, and the ability to absorb knowledge.
While ideas for breakthrough innovations may start with individuals, or small groups, the ability to quickly take these ideas from conception to success depends on connectivity within and across organisations.
This should be remarkably easy in our digital age – but, paradoxically, while the internet has made connectivity a prerequisite to breakthrough culture (since everybody now has the same connectivity tools), it has also made effective use of connectivity much harder.
High quality connections
Knowing hundreds of people on a casual basis used to be a social feat, but with LinkedIn and other social media this has become mundane. Quantity of contacts does not necessarily beget quality; in fact, it may even make it harder to put contacts to good use.
Connectivity that fosters breakthrough achievement is based on knowing which of your contacts will have the missing piece of knowledge you need to complete the puzzle. This in turn depends on what researchers on innovation call ‘absorptive capacity’: the knowledge base needed to understand the value of knowledge generated elsewhere, and to integrate this knowledge into your work.
Research suggests that organisations that have a diverse knowledge base are more likely to have the high level of absorptive capacity needed for breakthrough innovations than organisations that are less diverse.
Outsourcing your knowledge base
Many organisations simply do not have the resources to maintain the diverse body of knowledge needed to develop strong absorptive capacity. Fortunately, they can often offset this problem by making use of the knowledge base that surrounds them.
Businesses based in the North West of England are particularly fortunate in this respect. The region has a strong publicly funded knowledge ecology, which includes world-class research universities such as The University of Manchester.
But the role of a university is not only to create knowledge that others can use; it is also to develop the talent on which breakthrough culture depends. Organisations, both public and private, understand that knowledge and know-how are often indissolubly linked. This is why they look to universities such as The University of Manchester to supply cutting-edge knowledge, as well as knowledgeable and skilful researchers and graduates, to create the breakthrough culture they need to survive and prosper.