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Edition #21 | May 2022

Breaking through innovation fatigue

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With companies increasingly judged by the speed at which they can absorb change and push the envelope of what’s possible in their industries, enterprises are under enormous pressure to invest in initiatives that will define them as innovation leaders.


But the constant and delicate balancing act between attempting to break new ground and fulfilling day-to-day business priorities is creating a sense of ‘innovation fatigue’ among business leaders. What are the forces behind this struggle? Is it even possible for a business to excel at both at once? 


In this issue of Perspectives, Thoughtworks experts explain how organizations can identify and remove barriers to meaningful transformation, and create room to innovate for future growth while maintaining operational effectiveness on a day to day basis. 


Organizational challenges are the main cause of innovation fatigue

Source: Wellspring


i. Defining innovation’s various dimensions


Limiting the definition of innovation to lofty ambitions is often the fundamental reason for organizations’ disillusionment with their lack of progress. In fact, innovation in technology more often takes the form of a refinement or repositioning than the development of something totally new. Instead of exclusively pursuing big-picture, transformative innovations, building a portfolio of initiatives that span different innovation ‘horizons’ is often the path to becoming more competitive and delivering better outcomes.



Defining innovation’s various dimensions

Source: Thoughtworks


ii. The foundation: Addressing the tech debt through a thin-slice approach


The ‘tech debt’ companies accumulate due to legacy technology constraints often eats into financial and human resources that could otherwise have been diverted into innovation initiatives. Yet many companies - with some justification - see modernizing their tech infrastructure as a massive and potentially problematic undertaking. Adopting a ‘thin slice’ approach can help the organization transition more smoothly to innovation-ready infrastructure while minimizing disruption and upfront costs - and, crucially, making it easier for teams to embrace the change.


Photo headshot of Richard Kick, Head of Engineering Delivery Excellence, Thoughtworks
“We can’t blow up the entire house or build you a new house and slowly move you over. We’ve got to remodel the house you’re in because that’s how you make your money.” 


Richard Kick
Head of Engineering Delivery Excellence, Thoughtworks


iii. Various paths to a change-ready culture


While infrastructure can impede an organization’s innovation strategy, talent challenges and flat-out fear of change are often the real roadblocks to progress. Selling people on the vision, getting the right kind of leadership in place, and building a culture that embraces learning from failure can all contribute to the development of an ingrained, company-wide innovation ecosystem. 


Photo headshot of Dave Elliman, Global Head of Technology, Thoughtworks
“The bigger the movement away from a simple optimization into something that might be new or perceived to be higher risk, the more proportional inertia in the internal organization is generated.”


Dave Elliman
Global Head of Technology, Thoughtworks 


iv. Governance and guardrails


At its best innovation is based on spontaneity and creativity - yet a set of governance ‘guardrails’ is needed to ensure it contributes to the company’s overarching strategy. When deciding on innovation priorities, enterprises should be sensitive to customer feedback and industry trends, yet also brave enough to set their own direction. Data and measurement need to play a role in defining what progress and ROI really look like, and it’s increasingly vital that the definition of success incorporates security and sustainability, as well as financial considerations.



v. Innovation ‘north stars’: Inspiring examples, but every company has to find its own  


Without the burden of legacy tech, digitally-native organizations tend to have an advantage when it comes to innovation. However, even established companies with longer histories and aging infrastructure can be nimble when they adopt a failure-tolerant mindset and provide their people trust at scale. Innovation is connected deeply to the organization’s purpose and each business has to forge its own path - but truly impactful innovations will echo well beyond company and industry boundaries.


Photo headshot of Andy Nolan, Director of Emerging Technologies, Thoughtworks
“If you can provide space for people to innovate as part of their job, you're going to end up with more ideas. These innovations will be embedded in your products without having to independently fund them or set them up.”  


Andy Nolan
Director of Emerging Technologies, Thoughtworks

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