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How to drive innovation in mature organisations

How to drive innovation in mature organisations 

A recent blog by change expert John Kotter highlights an inevitability that many managers and leaders face… how to drive innovation in mature organisations.

Every organisation, no matter how brilliant its products or services, starts, grows, becomes mature and eventually declines and dies… every single one. The elixir of life evades organisations as much as it does you or I. Granted, some organisations are able to live into old age (interestingly the oldest recorded businesses in the world – according to Wikipedia –can trace themselves back to over 1500 years) but for many, the best they can hope is a few decades. 

Fast and agile start 

Why does this happen? Any organisation can all trace its origins to a “beginning”… where there was sense of purpose and a group of people coming together to do some good. As Kotter says: 

Organisations start out fast and agile. Initially, they organise more as a network than as a hierarchy. They demonstrate a clear sense of urgency around an opportunity, and many of their employees provide, in one way or another, some leadership on initiatives to achieve that opportunity”.

At this point, there is usually a lot of leadership (setting direction, having a vision, communicating direction etc.) and very little management (process, control, systems etc.). 

When innovation goes down, down and down 

However, as the organisation continues to be successful and grow, the need for more control and processes takes over. Leadership becomes less important than management. As Kotter says: 

At a certain point, innovation goes down, down and down. As a result, growth slows. But, if you have enough market share, proprietary technology, a big enough brand name and anything that can stifle the competition, you can continue to make money and convince yourself that all is well.”

The complacency this generates leaves organisations extremely vulnerable to a rapid or disruptive change in their world. They will continue to try to manage their way out of a crisis usually with fatal consequences… cost slashing, endless reorganisations, a merry-go-round of senior managers. None of these address the fundamental need to innovate”. 

Back to the future 

So what can you do if your organisation is mature and innovation is difficult (and hopefully before a crisis befalls it)? As Kotter alludes to, you need to unleash a new, entrepreneurial group whose sole goal is to innovate and find new opportunities without the constraints of the machine-bureaucracy. As Kotter says: 

It is somewhat like going back to the future: building a structure and way of operating that you had briefly in the past – an entrepreneurial network”.

This network must stay connected to the rest of the organisation. If it isn’t, it risks becoming a spin-off where its new ideas might be ignored and will be impossible to bring into the broader group. Kotter talks of a “Dual Operating Model” where successful organisations have a core group of innovators alongside (and in concert) with the core “performance engine” of the business. 

This balance between focusing on “today” and “tomorrow” is key to maintaining existing performance while remaining relevant and prolonging organisational life. 

The Bee Book 

This approach to innovation is what we tried to capture in The Bee Book. Our simple fable is a tool you can use to stimulate a discussion in your organisation about maturity, complacency and your culture of innovation. It will show you that there is another way and that more of the same managerial processes are not enough to give your organisation the longevity you desire. 

Why not download a free copy of the 1st Chapter of The Bee Book today and see how the story begins? If it resonates, you can buy a copy (Kindle or Paperback) via Amazon. Who knows, it may help your organisation be still be around in 1500 years?

Author Craig Smith MBA 

Craig Smith

Craig is the Senior Consultant and Director within Flint Consulting and has experience of working and consulting within the private and public sector. 

Before founding Flint Consulting (originally as Handmade Learning) in 2007, Craig previously worked for PepsiCo for 6 years in operational and HR roles. Prior to that, Craig worked in senior operational roles within Royal Mail and Northumbrian Water. 

Craig is co-author of ‘The Bee Book: A Tale of Leadership and Change’, which takes an unconventional look at the challenges organisations face when trying to adapt to a rapidly changing and unpredictable world. 

Every organisation, no matter how brilliant its products or services, starts, grows, becomes mature and eventually declines and dies. In this article Craig looks at what these causes are and how to create balance to prolong organisational life. 

© Craig Smith MBA, 2016 
Reviewed 2022

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