Henk van den Breemen reflects on Breakthrough: From Innovation to Impact.
One of the main goals of the Owls Project is to contribute to an ongoing discussion on innovations and breakthrough processes. We do this through the transfer of knowledge and experiences of key leaders and by our research. In so doing, we also intend to contribute to the development of stimulating environments for innovations in order to enable genuine breakthroughs and impact.
We are very proud that we were able to engage actively with so many highly qualified and experienced figures from our network. This is one of the distinguishing features of this book. These remarkable people were generous with their time and thought hard to reflect on their experiences in terms of the generic factors that we identified. They were asked to recall or write down how the process stages were related to each other, and to reflect on what role the factors of leadership, environment and window of opportunity played in their specific activity and in general. All the chapters tell their own story. The form was semi-structured and left total freedom in composition and tone of voice, thus enhancing accessibility and authenticity. But we were also aware that this would make the assessments in the qualitative analysis more challenging.
The stories are remarkable and cover an extraordinarily wide range of activities across the world. The subjects were selected in this way because the aim of our project is broad. We live in a world of great interdependency where no country, institution or business can operate and succeed on its own. And indeed, no innovation will arise on its own either. What we also see is that cross-over activities between different disciplines are increasing, for example in health and logistics, sectors which are both seeking to overcome similar challenges of delivery and efficiency.
The Owls Project wanted not only to go for a broad overview of subject areas, but also to dig deeper in order to get a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms of innovations. By doing so, we also could get deeper insights into the possibilities of enhancing impact. Therefore we looked for generic factors.
These are factors which we assumed to be present in all our cases. Coming from our practical background, we wanted them to be closely linked to the real practice of innovation. Therefore we linked and modelled them in the stages of an implementation process, bearing in mind that each innovation process starts with a creative phase, which might be an invention, a brilliant idea or a great vision. The first challenge is to transfer this creative impulse into reality by developing a proper concept.
In the concept the thinking is transferred to the concrete sub-targets, which lead to strategy, planning and execution. We call this the operational phase. In that phase the iterative process also plays a role in continuously checking to ensure that execution and targets are kept in sync. As a result of a pre-test we added to the six original factors (innovation/breakthrough, idea/vision, concept, mission/strategy, planning/execution, iterative process) three additional factors: human factors, environmental factors and the window of opportunity. This practical approach turned out to be very effective and enlightening.
We selected different types of innovations and breakthroughs. Some innovations and breakthroughs are driven from within the organisation itself, of which the Mayo Clinic is a good example. As one of the most advanced healthcare institutions in the world, it has developed a vision and long-term plan that includes managing internal innovation processes. In the case of the Arctic it is quite literally the environment that is forcing businesses, countries, indigenous peoples and international organisations to innovate. In the energy sector, innovations are driven by scarcity. In logistics they are driven by global demand and the pursuit of efficiency and cost reduction. In agriculture, breakthroughs are driven by scientific discovery and by individuals and institutions devoted to promoting a scientific concept as national and international policy.
We found that in all these and the other cases of our research generic factors were present and that their role can differ case by case. It is fascinating to see how factors can work towards success or failure. For example, German Unification was enabled by geopolitical and social change (environmental factor), but achieved by leadership (human factor) which seized the opportunity (window of opportunity). The establishment of Al Jazeera is also a good example of the importance of the window of opportunity and leadership. Both cases were followed up by a very smooth execution (operational factor). The Oslo Accords case is an example where it was difficult to transfer the concept into achievable sub-targets.
These examples show that generic factors help to understand the underlying mechanisms of innovation and breakthrough processes. What can we do with that? How can we benefit? First, the generic factors play an important role in the overall results of the research in each chapter. Together they form a very useful reference bank for anyone who wants to start or is in the middle of an innovation or breakthrough process. Each chapter holds valuable lessons for individuals, companies, institutions and governmental entities.
This knowledge can be beneficial for multidisciplinary and cross-over activities which are of great importance in today’s globalised world. It is very helpful if you are able to see and understand the mechanisms involved in the different activities we describe. For example, health and logistics are both adapting to consumer-driven markets (concept, planning and execution). Different countries have different cultures, and the factor of the environment may be very important for the success or failure of a process.
We also did qualitative overall research on all the chapters. It showed that there are some really dominant factors which play an important role in all of our case studies. They are the creative factors—innovation/breakthrough, idea, vision and concept—as well as the enabling, human and environmental factors and window of opportunity. Our study shows that the operational factors scored less highly.
The generic factors that we identified turned out to be more than an analytical tool. They can also be used as ‘buttons’ to improve the chance of success. For example, if the environment is not ready, you can work on creating a better one by promoting awareness of opportunities. The Responsibility to Protect case is a good example of a vision and concept making a diplomatic breakthrough in the United Nations, after the environment had been steadily prepared for it over a period of several years with discussions, pamphlets and advocacy. In other cases—whether in business, healthcare or diplomacy—if you wish to bring a diverse set of stakeholders together, then you will need to show leadership (human factor) and to ‘press the button’ of vision, because only a clear vision with a shared goal by leaders can translate into institutional partnerships between diverse stakeholders.
Very often an implementation gets stuck in the concept stage. If there is no proper transformation of ‘the thinking to the doing’, the result is that there is no proper executive follow-up. The same applies in a situation where there are plenty of new ideas, but no proper capacity to execute. Another important factor is the role played by the environment, which includes society and governments. They can be decisive stumbling blocks, and understanding their role requires attention beforehand.
These examples show that generic factors can contribute to a stimulating environment for innovation and breakthrough in which there is keenness to seize opportunities for innovations, and welcome, stimulate and implement them quickly. If this is done, we will achieve the impact we want.
In our qualitative analysis, we examined each of the cases, focusing on the presence and role of these factors. We did also an overall analysis of the data. The results of our qualitative research were assessed by a software programme and an assessment team. Thanks to the software analysis it was possible to examine large data sets in a short period of time. The results of both analyses stand on their own and are extremely useful. However, this project did not aim to determine absolute truths, but to provide insightful information on the mechanism of innovations and breakthroughs.
An extract from Breakthrough: From Innovation to Impact