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Expanding your organisation’s innovation culture with innovation dojo

How can we train innovation to flourish in a world of complexity?

By Christoph Lütz & Johanna Rosenbusch

A flower pot with a plant growing out of it. The plant has one big stem and grows up and then arches down to the right side of the pot. The stem of the plant continues to the right and forms the word "Innovation".

Through our work as innovation facilitators we have encountered many times how innovation is being used as a mere buzzword. Because organisations are lacking the understanding of what they are really trying to achieve in this field. As a consequence, many innovation training formats bring across a variety of tools that can turn out to be hollow artefacts - and are discarded as soon as the external consultant leaves the building. So we have been asking ourselves: How can we train innovation to flourish in a world of complexity?

Dojo ≠ lecture

A dojo is the gathering place for martial arts students. The term literally means "place of the way" in Japanese

Trainings in a business context are a great way to teach new tools and methods. However, especially in innovation, these trainings are often reduced to solving hypothetical problems (we probably all did The Wallet Project by now) instead of empowering participants to become innovators. Johanna and I wanted to create a concept that goes beyond lecturing. That offers the deeper connection to what is actually missing for most participants: a safe space to try out those methods, to explore individually what this new mindset could mean for them, and to experiment with a new way of communication and interaction. The innovation dojo was born!

In other articles we lay out a more detailed agenda as well as the facilitation principles with which we create that safe space and time during the training for participants to step into acting themselves.

In this article, we elaborate on WHAT we believe the mindset and skills are that are needed for innovation to flourish. And WHY we believe these are necessary for succeeding in a world of complexity.

WHY Innovation is complex

It’s safe to say: innovation is about the New. New products and services, but also new kinds of challenges and definitely new work environments. The CoVid pandemic has dramatically portrayed what VUCA means. On top of that, innovation is becoming less a Daniel Düsentrieb / Gyro Gearloose kind of work, but rather an interdisciplinary, sometimes even cross-industry, team effort. This adds an additional level of complexity, as we are multiplying by the human factor which in itself is multilayered, often unpredictable and highly diverse.

Now, what does that mean for our mindset? Order, control, planning aren’t working anymore! Innovation calls for co-creation in interdisciplinary teams and as such for an extended mindset beyond industrial management thinking. Innovation is no longer the mere exploration and exploitation of new market opportunities, it is a way of working together, a way of communicating with each other, with ourselves and above all, a way of thinking and seeing the world.

Broaden the mindset

An innovation mindset is therefore a broad mindset: facing a diversity of situations requires a mind that dares to apply different tool sets to see which one works best. This means the meta level needs to be constantly switched on. Usually in this day and age of hyper-specialization, we are not educated or trained to switch between our very own operating systems. Hence, our first step of the training is a navigation tool to choose the right framework for every situation.

The image shows four quadrants: Top left "complex" and "emergent practice", top right "complicated" and "good practice", bottom left "chaotic" and "novel practice" and bottom right "simple" and "best practice". In the middle is a red field labeled "disorder"
Cynefin model after Dave Snowden - own visual

The CYNEFIN model, developed by Dave Snowden, is such a navigation tool. In short, what its 5 categories tell us:

  • simple involves routine tasks,

  • complicated stands for experts and optimisation (like building a plane),

  • complex means systems and exploration (as in building a sustainable transportation solution for long-distance travel),

  • and chaotic stands for unpredictable novelty, like the CoViD pandemic.

  • But most important, the center - disorder - is where we lack orientation and might end up using the wrong tools for the job.

So, WHAT do we do?

We selected different methods from different fields to create an - in our view - holistic skill set for complex challenges and situations. These include Design Thinking, Agile, and Moderation. While Design Thinking as well as Agile are extensively written and talked about, it might be surprising to have Moderation as a part of an innovation training. However, the ability to moderate people in the process of navigating complex environments and embracing human interaction is a vital part of innovation. Hence, all three disciplines (design thinking, agile, moderation) are applied in the innovation dojo.

Being able to identify the situation or challenge correctly is one thing, knowing the tools from each framework to be able to apply them accordingly is another, and therefore our second step of the training. Somebody with only a hammer as a tool sees a nail in every problem. And yes, the hammer analogy goes of course both ways: agile is not the best framework for every task! Embracing this ambidexterity of co-existing frameworks is probably one of the most essential skills learned in the innovation dojo.

Unleashing innovation

Following from the above, an innovator’s mindset is one that can switch easily between perspectives (and meta levels). This is necessary to collectively process information and choose the next step accordingly. Until now, the innovation dojo still might sound like the typical training to you. If we would have to boil it down to a sentence what makes the dojo unique, it is the "au naturel" rediscovery of self-efficacy and human connection. During each of the trainings we have facilitated so far, we identified the following path of personal development in our participants:

The visual shows three small groups of people, starting in the bottom left, in the middle and the top right. Connected by a brush stroke that arches from the bottom left to the top right. In group in the bottom right every person has a small speech bubble. In the group in the middle, every person has a speech bubble which are larger and overlap. The top right shows three people in the cabin of a hot-air-balloon over a stylised horizon. The balloon itself is formed out of the three speech bubbles.

Stage 1 - connection - includes the ability to listen to and accept other people’s perspectives. In Design Thinking it is necessary in order to empathise with the customer and continue with building on ideas of others when coming up with new solutions during the process. With a growing attitude of “I am ok, you are ok”, participants accept other people’s perspectives even if they’re different. And feel safe to speak theirs. Re-learning that their voice is heard and their opinion counts is a crucial step to a more individual creativity and through that more innovative organisation. Formats like check-ins & check-outs create the space for personal wholeness.

Stage 2 - contribution - now builds on the experience that others listen to and work with my input I contributed. From what we have seen as innovation facilitators, many organisations are deprived of self-efficacy among their employees. Team retrospectives and reflections allow teams to grow together and learn from each other. Gradually learning to express myself - may it be emotions, ideas or observations - on a personal, team and content level, is an important element of the training concept. Seeing others work with my own perspective and feeling comfortable to work with theirs, enables a new “We”, where now groups of people co-create something together.

And finally - collaboration - as Stage 3. We know that complex challenges don’t have easy solutions, and now that all perspectives are in the game, we have the opportunity to explore uncharted territory: ideas and solutions beyond familiar opinions and early conclusions. Being able to hold the tension within the team - the groan zone - requires a level of personal growth that doesn’t come naturally to everyone who worked in rigid structures before. While interweaving the different perspectives, participants, together, feel comfortable exploring new directions, enduring uncertainty and not-knowing.

Innovation dojo creates that much space for self-reflection to enable that personal development in every participant. A thriving organisation needs thriving individuals who can unfold their potential, bring out their ideas and effectively apply well-proven methods to drive innovation forward.

We hope you enjoyed this journey along these principles of a new kind of innovation training with us. Do get in touch and let us know!

We want to shout out a big THANK YOU to the RBI Organisation Innovation Team, especially to Nicole Stroj & Christina Pfeiler. And to Silvia Handler & Sarina Herold of the Innovation Office at WU Wien. Without you, this format wouldn’t exist.


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