Building an innovation ecosystem.

The untapped opportunity of wicked problems

Most businesses, at least the successful and forward-thinking ones, are constantly working on innovation or R&D driven by the relentless forces of competition, and across different businesses and sectors there’s a wide variety of different approaches.

Some tend to work forwards from their technology, often evolving, extending, incrementally improving what’s gone before and building, from the resources and expertise they already have, the next rung on their great ladder of progress.

Others tend to work backwards from the customer, the problems they talk about, the unrecognised needs they have, or even the unimagined potential they might want. Who knew, 25 years ago, that people would want to buy shoes, start their cars, view flats and houses, all on their phones?

Some mainly invest their R&D efforts at the incremental end, others might augment that with a few big bets at the visionary end of the innovation spectrum. But all of them are striking some kind of balance, between selling and delivering to customers what they’ve already developed, and developing what they’re going to deliver next.

And they’re all keeping it secret, racing against each other, searching for that short window of clear competitive advantage.

Or nearly all of them. Because there are some businesses who do nothing but innovate. And there’s a lot the rest of us can learn from how they work.

Pure-play innovators don’t aim to conquer consumer markets, they aim to solve valuable but complex, or “wicked” problems. They might consult with businesses to help with the incremental end of innovation, but more often than not they’re working on those big, visionary bets, taking their own small stake through IP, equity, or Joint Venture.

Critically though, they are rarely working alone. Usually, they situate themselves in a network of other organisations, technology specialists, agile manufacturers, leading-edge brands, venture investors, and often other innovators, all of whom they can draw together in open collaboration around specific challenges.

For most “average” businesses, this is an alien model locked away in “innovation parks”: converted warehouses on light industrial estates, low-rent office space on the edge of a university campus, or steel-and-glass biotech hubs just off a motorway junction where strange collections of creatives, geeks, techies, and engineers chase grant money in packs.

And for any actual, practical R&D, the “ecosystem-based” model is purely the province of big operators like Intel, Rolls Royce, Astra Zeneca, those with the patience and the pockets to invest in that scale of innovation infrastructure, and the market reach to make it pay back.

But is it?

A few weeks ago, I spoke with a very diverse group of business leaders and talked them through the basic principles, of picking out a complex problem – something customers or consumers are crying out for or will be once they can see it – and bringing a whole cluster of collaborators, even competitors together, to develop solutions.

I asked them to reflect on their past and to recall if they’d ever experienced it. And the amazing thing was that every single one of them came back with their examples. And in every single example, it had been a success. Sometimes modestly, sometimes massively. Some even spoke about it having been a turning point in their business.

But not once had they done it pro-actively – each time it was a customer that had forced the issue. And not one of them had stepped back and thought, “You know what? There’s a different way of working here that we can use again and again.”

They are not alone. Look at your own past. When have you pulled together an ecosystem of collaborators and competitors to solve a wicked problem? And if it was successful, isn’t it time you thought about making that model a core part of your innovation programme?

Because here’s the thing, you don’t need to build a business park to develop an innovation ecosystem, you just need to ask yourself, what are the wicked problems that would be game-changing to solve, and who would you need to bring together to help you solve them?