Learning the Mantra of Innovation Context

February 18, 2014 By Paul Hobcraft

Context is everything, it allows people to frame their thinking and direct their efforts. For innovation this is vitally important.

We have all got used to the statement it is all about “location, location, location” for real-estate. So what should the mantra be for innovation? I think “context, context and context”. Context is a king.

Innovation happens all around us, same as with our places where we live- it is determined by many factors but given a choice we want to live somewhere nice, safe and hopefully going up in value! The same with innovation we want it to be good, attractive, useful and valued by many, hopefully willing to part with their money because it fulfils their need.

Innovation should always start of by being placed in its appropriate context otherwise it will lose its initial connection, dilute in the eventual value and arrive as less desirable because we somehow and somewhere went off track We lost the context because we never really established the real ‘sense of purpose’ for that specific innovation or given direction to explore.

Why do I believe context is the king when it comes to innovation?

The power of context shifts everything and then gives it ‘shape’. It provides the conditions and the circumstances of time and place and why we need to find and deliver something different. It provides the innovation marching orders.

If we place innovation in a certain set of contexts, then those setting about the task are more sensitive to the needs and understanding, they can relate or can reject this. It can allow them to work more clearly and effectively, not necessarily efficiently as innovation is inherently messy.

Context gives us certain guard rails or borders to help gain a more united focus. Where we go after that, by pushing those borders will depend on those involved by seeing a greater value in an evolving context of mutual understanding. The ‘setting it in context’ allows for dialogue, adding more value to the thinking.

If we don’t know why we are doing something in our innovation activities, there is a good chance we will just stop innovating and switch to auto-pilot. We become disinclined to be creative as we don’t understand the “what for”. Knowing the context allows us to engage.

Context needs to also become, increasingly the arbitrator of success. Around this, you form your community that seeks out the possible solutions to this. Context gives knowledge into the hands of others to go and work on finding possible solutions. Knowing the context, gives us something highly relevant to judge eventual outcomes on.

Context must lead, functionality and capability then follow

There is a flow for improving innovation performance. If we don’t frame the business context how can we compare and contrast? How do we know what we are missing or what it is meant to be achieving? When we go about seeking out opportunities we need to understand the context these are placed in, the avenue of competitive advantage the new solution is attempting to address.

This requires a ‘decent’ vision, often beyond a product brief that might be adjusted as we learn more, it needs to fit into the context of our business strategy and goals, our ambitions of what we want innovation to achieve. We need to have something we can measure ‘it’ against with all the commitment of time and resource. We need to give our search for innovation some function and form. We begin to reveal our ‘gaps’ when we have a ‘reasonable clue of where we are heading.

Then we each have of our personal contexts that form our identity and motivations to help in delivering the innovation, these will lead us into our performance and contribution. Here by knowing the context does helps us assess if we have the capabilities in knowledge, skills, experience and expertise to deliver on the context or not.

Knowing the context actually empowers us, it gives us the reference points of our engagement. It allows us to work towards plugging those gaps to lead to improved functionality and capabilities gained.

We can apply our capacities to absorb and learn.

We can become adaptive. We can set about acquiring, assimilating, transforming and exploiting knowledge far better if we know the context it is needed to be applied. I wrote an article on absorptive capacity recently where I stated “The value of absorptive capacity is that when organizations have some prior knowledge they are more receptive to adding new understandings and new ideas”

The lessons of placing ‘it’ in context are powerful. We are more than sensitive to change; it can be a negative or positive experience. If we place great attention to context always, in our conversations, in our goal setting, in our innovation work it becomes one of the powerful enablers of bringing about change.

Context does not just ‘set’ but it ‘allows’ innovation to happen.

You are putting knowledge into the hands of the people willing to make it happen. Allow them to invent, to brainstorm, and to generate concepts, prototypes because alongside the mantra of “context, context, and context” you place equally “people, people, people” as innovation only happens through people.

You give each person the explicit encouragement, by laying these in the right context, then you can simple ‘get out of the way’ and let them go to work in delivering innovative solutions to that context. You are all working off of the same, often ‘dynamic’ page, as the innovation evolves, so does the context get refreshed. Innovation takes on a distinct identity for all involved.

Of course context is going to be fluid

It is going to be needed to be adaptive as we learn but it will be placed in ‘certain bounds’. If we start from a much clearer starting base then the learning and discovery allows people to want to find solutions as they gain increased knowledge and provide fresh inputs, they begin to strongly relate.

The innovation activity becomes eventually a thriving community working in the innovation context where new beliefs can be practised, expressed and nurtured. As Malcolm Gladwell put it in his book “The Tipping Point :How little things can make a big difference”, the lesson is in the value of the Power of Context.

Context sets us the dancing music, the ‘one step, two-step’ of learning and knowing, searching and discovering. As we ‘tune in’ we begin to move and respond, it sets the conditions to build the rhythm needed for innovation. It allows for the further steps, the pivotal ones, those that lead you to a better chance of producing winning innovation simply by knowing the critical aspect of “it’s”context. Context gives our innovation activity its meaning and sense of purpose.

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