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The Challenge of Decision-Making for Innovators

Do innovators operate in chaos? Is innovation all about action? While many interviews would lead you to think that innovation is all about action (indeed all great innovators are action oriented leaders), innovation is about rigorous tools and processes to manage a complex situation. Read on.

CYNEFIN framework provides guidance on decision making in different environments
Cynefin Framework by Dave Snowden

Recently, a veteran consultant commented on our presentation to a client, suggesting that the process focus we recommended was complex. He argued that innovation doesn't result from process; rather, you should act and observe the results.


However, substantial research indicates that any organization aiming to innovate needs a process-driven approach. Relying on sudden bursts of creativity and spontaneous actions makes innovation a matter of chance, with success being rare and unpredictable.


Experts like Tony Ulwick and Steve Blank support this perspective. Yet, many well-meaning and successful consultants and leaders, advocate for a more spontaneous approach to innovation.


This belief seems to stem from a misunderstanding of how successful innovators operate. Many innovators recount their journeys as a series of actions taken in an environment without constraints, structure, or patterns. Innovation often appears to result from the accidental convergence of the right technology, people, market conditions, and investments at the right time.


Dave Snowden refers to such a seemingly disordered environment as chaos in his Cynefin Framework. While innovation does occur in disordered environments, it rarely happens in pure chaos. Most innovation environments are often perceived as such, chaotic, due to a lack of process. Without a structured approach, innovation becomes a chance event, requiring mavericks to succeed.


Conversely, great innovations typically arise in complex systems characterized by constant flux, uncertainty, and unpredictability. In these environments:

  • Customer needs are evolving, and innovators strive to be the first to market.

  • Technology advances rapidly, necessitating bets on emerging trends and standards.

  • Market creation involves continuous pivots and targeting different personas.


In such settings, innovators often identify cause-and-effect relationships retrospectively. The right answers are not immediately obvious and must be uncovered through experimentation.


Dave Snowden suggests that complex domains require a decision-making system known as Probe-Sense-Respond. This approach enables decision-making in environments marked by constant change and uncertainty.


Effective innovation processes aim to increase the likelihood of success by:

  1. Screening Innovation Ideas: Ensuring alignment with ambition and customer needs, whether derived from market trends, future customer demands, or technological advancements.

  2. Hypothesis-Driven Process: Managing the Probe-Sense-Respond cycle systematically.

  3. Experimentation Process: Testing desirability, viability, and feasibility through prototypes of increasing fidelity, speeding up product design, and reducing costs.

  4. Market Building and Business Model Development: Iterating alongside product development to build markets and refine business models.

  5. Systematic Learning: Capturing lessons from the entire process to reduce reliance on mavericks and geniuses.


Interestingly, there seem to be no best practices for innovation, as practices are still evolving and must be tailored to each unique situation. What works in one organizational environment may not work in another. This variability reinforces the complex nature of innovation systems, influenced by culture, capabilities, leadership styles, technology, and industry landscapes.


Ultimately, how would you prefer to run your innovation efforts? In a chaotic space where success is a matter of chance, or in an environment that acknowledges and accommodates the complex nature of innovation? Do comment on the article.


To learn more about how you could make your innovation efforts more predictable, reach out and book a free 60-minute consultation using the link https://bit.ly/3eLCLGz with Krishnan.

Alternatively, write to krishnan@thinkhorizonconsulting.com 


Krishnan Naganathan


Krishnan is a leading innovation consultant and focuses on helping people and organizations innovate and build capabilities for innovation. He brings over 30 years of experience in the industry and consulting. You can reach him by phone / WhatsApp: +919791033967 or email: krishnan@thinkhorizonconsulting.com


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