#172 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 8          August 1995

Stimulating Discovery:  Ways to Sustain Inventive Organizations
by Jill E. Janov

Ms. Janov is founder of Jill Janov Associates ((415) 821-3277), a consulting firm specializing in systemic approaches to the design of work processes, roles, relationships, structures and strategies.  She is author of The Inventive Organization:  Hope & Daring at Work (Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1994), from which this article was adapted.

This article is about inventive organizations, what constitutes them, and what sustains them.  Specifically, it focuses on stimulating processes of discovery about what we have and how we can use what we have in our collective endeavors.

Three Types of OrganizationsóFixed, Adaptive and Inventive

Perhaps the best way to define an inventive organization is to compare and contrast it with fixed and adaptive organizations.  A fixed organization is focused on the technology that created its greatness and on enhancing that which initially captured its market share.  It continues to operate on the basis of assumptions that gave rise to its initial success.  It seeks to maintain its greatness by doing more of what made it great to begin with.  Because its focus is inward, itís not attuned to changes in its external operating environment.  The organization is fixed because itís caught in a syndrome of staring at its own belly button.

The adaptive organization is reactive.  In its drive to rapidly adapt to changes in its operating environment, it doesnít take the time to determine the underlying patterns of change within the environment.  Nor does it take the time to illuminate its own underlying assumptions about the impact of those changes.  Reactions usually take the form of continuous tinkering with the organizationís structure and processes in an effort to compete with those who are more successful in the marketplace.  This often results in the simultaneous undertaking of multiple improvement initiatives, the outcomes of which include a loss of focus and/or misalignment between strategy, structure, espoused values, and operating practices.  The adaptive organization is chaotic.  In its efforts to adapt, it traps itself by trying to imitate rather than innovate and ultimately becomes caught in a knee-jerk, reactive syndrome.

The inventive organization is focused on creating a future that utilizes the organizationís past learnings and incorporates the aspirations and requirements of its constituents--customers, stakeholders, suppliers, and employees.  Inventive organizations create the playing field.  Theyíre capable of producing and pacing continuous improvement and developing core competence--the know-how and know-what that are the real wealth of any enterprise or institution.

An inventive organization is one with enhanced capacities to imagine and create.  Itís capable of more than meeting customer requirements.  An inventive organization is one that:

1)  continuously questions the assumptions that gave rise to the enterprise;

2)  surprises and delights customers in service and product, warranty, and function;

3)  knows what causes customers to choose one product or service over another;

4)  focuses on how something is used, and not simply what it was designed to do;

5)  leads change through a well thought-out strategy thatís aligned with organizational structure, policies, and practices;

6)  knows when and how to obsolete its existing product or service advantages without alienating customers;

7)  learns how it learns;

8)  encourages and rewards experimentation; and,

9)  chases dreams instead of the competition.

What Inventive Is and Isnít

To be inventive, we must use whatís known to nurture, rather than inhibit what can be imagined.  To be inventive means we preserve and perpetuate those assets--those ways of being and doing--that create organizational strength while we grow by daring to be what weíve not been before.  Invention requires that we look within ourselves and our organizations--with a focus on all employees; that we look beyond ourselves and our organizations--to our customers, suppliers, financiers, society, the environment; that we look back and look forward simultaneously.  Invention is a process we can undertake as individuals as well as in our collective endeavors.  When we do it well, we act courageously to create what we can and to preserve what we need--and we know the difference between the two.

Stimulating Processes of Discovery

Inventive organizations create the playing field by thinking about how they think.  They seek to uncover the underlying assumptions that frame choices and lead to consequences.  Ultimately, they are focused on stimulating processes of discovery.  Such processes of discovery enable us to get out of the box of our current thinking, to discover how we discover, and to illuminate the filters that constrain what we perceive and consider.  Processes of discovery are supported by guidelines and stimulated by questions.  Useful guidelines in stimulating processes of discovery include:

1)  learning to ask "why not?" versus "why?";

2)  suspending certainty;

3)  growing ideas versus taking a position;

4)  seeking to broaden the inquiry;

5)  being open to versus attached to outcomes;

6)  asking "what would happen if we didnít make this assumption?";

7)  inquiring "what we would do if we werenít constricted by a certain assumption?";

8)  treating something we believe is true as a myth.

Some questions that provoke thinking anew include:

            Meta Questions:       

            What are we here to do?

            What do we want to achieve?

            What do we want this organization to stand for?

Questions to Stimulate Thinking About Answering Meta Questions:

Who are the customers; what do they want; what use do they make of the product/service; what causes them to choose; how do we know this; how do we know we know?

What essential work/competencies are required to meet or exceed customer requirements?

What ideological agreement binds us; how do we want to relate to our customers, our work associates, and the means by which we produce?

Why are we doing this; on whom do we depend; who depends on us; what are the series of relationships that constitute our organization?

What authority is required to support responsibility; whatís required for each of us to be accountable--to see ourselves as the source of the product or service, the source of the organization?

What questions are we living with; who else needs to be involved; what needs to touch what to achieve the outcomes we seek?

To stimulate processes of discovery that sustain inventive organizations, we must start with the belief that we already have what we need, and that our challenge is to use what we already have.  Itís not a question of which organization is inventive and which isnít, but which has the courage to use what it has.  Believing we have what we need is more than an act of faith.  Itís an act of optimism, of hope.  Using what we have requires not only stimulating processes of discovery, but acts of courage, of daring. 

The Roman philosopher, Seneca said, ďIt is not because things are difficult that we do not dare.  It is because we do not dare that things are difficult.Ē  To stimulate processes of discovery that sustain inventive organizations, we need both hope and daring.

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