About the series
John Bremen is a guest contributor for Forbes.com, writing on topics including the future of work, leadership strategy, compensation and benefits, and sustainable strategies that support productivity and business success.
Elastic innovation disrupts innovation itself. The mindset and supporting processes continually expand and contract market response on a short-term, real-time basis, while simultaneously continuing to manage innovation pipelines for the long-term.
Media are flush with stories from 2020 and 2021 of companies pivoting operations to retool supply chains, distribution models, customer service protocols and products. Well-told product examples include temporary shifts from perfume to hand sanitizer, auto parts to ventilators, haute couture to masks, and vaccine development that accelerated at previously ungraspable levels. As economies around the world re-open, the pattern again shifts.
Elastic innovation is not just for the halo stories. There exist countless unreported instances of businesses making pivoting decisions across food, building supplies, microchips, computer hardware, insurance products, health care, financial solutions, automobiles, bicycles, and homeware throughout the fluctuating period.
History validates innovative businesses are more resilient in economic headwinds because their cultures and business models allow them to move quickly as the organization navigates through market uncertainty. Further, as intangible assets continue to be a dominant force in driving value growth in the market, companies continue to accelerate their investments in innovation.
The elastic innovation mindset builds on Clayton Christensen’s observation of the important difference between disruptive and sustaining innovation in his 1997 book Innovator’s Dilemma. This distinction suggests that not all innovation is created equal. Historically, innovation falls into three categories: grassroots, incremental, and disruptive. Elastic innovation adds a fourth category to denote immediate-time efforts to address often temporary and short-lived market needs, in many cases for organizational survival and/or growth during periods of extreme volatility. Some innovations will be short-lived; others will endure and become part of new business models.
Elastic innovation challenges organizations to rethink traditional assumptions and processes around innovation.
Elastic innovation also underscores that innovation is neither monolithic nor homogenous. That is, it means something different to each company strategically, culturally and operationally. While models may vary, effective innovation leadership at most companies requires an understanding of how innovation is expected to create value, the time horizon over which value is created, and combinations of metrics using qualitative and quantitative factors. Elastic innovation is unique given its time horizon and market focus often are very specific and determinant.
Elastic innovation challenges organizations to rethink traditional assumptions and processes around innovation, often operating outside of existing innovation processes and measures, for example, the “Five P’s” of innovation cited in collaboration with Dr. Paul Platten and Kenneth Kuk:
Traditionally, the number and quality of projects in the various stages of the innovation process relative to goals/expectations/leading practice. Under elastic innovation, key ideas may “jump” stages and/or be added to the development process from outside the pipeline.
The speed at which ideas/projects move through innovation the process. Under elastic innovation, pace often accelerates exponentially and dramatically cuts duration of time for ideas entering and exiting each development stage.
The extent to which the company’s innovation process itself is followed. Under elastic innovation, the innovation process flexes while maintaining development standards to ensure quality, safety, and product integrity remains paramount.
The extent to which the portfolio of projects reflects the mix and diversity of the company’s strategy and goals. Under elastic innovation, portfolio mix for the immediate term becomes less relevant as market-trends and conditions driving innovation often are short-lived. However, it remains important for grassroots, incremental, and disruptive innovation efforts to stay focused on the longer-term innovation pipeline and portfolio.
The impact on business outcomes of products/services that have resulted from the innovation process. Under elastic innovation, the impact of products and services is measured in both quantitative and qualitative terms, with qualitative measures often being more prominent.
Elastic innovation further emphasizes a sixth “P”: People. The culture required to support elastic innovation goes even further than traditional “cultures of innovation.” Knowing innovation frequently does not come from the top of an organization, senior leaders supporting elastic innovation understand incubation of ideas requires an environment that feels culturally, politically and psychologically “safe” for employees to take risks, voice concerns, and be heard. Leaders recognize the importance of promoting healthy company culture through dignity, psychological safety, inclusion, wellbeing, physical safety, and agility. They also know that purpose serves as the leadership glue that drives constancy in company culture while business models and daily operations transform, and that innovation is central to driving and sustaining (and protecting) company purpose.
With management models increasingly characterized by more agile, decentralized structures, effective innovation tends to capitalize on a mix of centralized and decentralized process, with many of the best ideas coming from deep within the organization. Using the elastic innovation mindset, leaders consider and prepare for multiple scenarios, effectively deal with complexity and ambiguity, manage paradoxes and balance opposing views, and see the big picture while effectively managing details.
A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com on June 28, 2021.