Fundamental Principles for Innovation – What’s Your Opinion?

In this article, Heinz Essman, contributing editor from South Africa, introduces a set of proposed fundamental principles for innovation. It is indeed a proposal and we are very interested in hearing your views on this. Welcome to read and then visit the to share your views and discuss with like-minded.

The process of realising benefits from creativity, the innovation process, can be complex. Numerous process frameworks are available to assist companies with delivering consistent innovation. These frameworks, however, always require significant modification for specific instances. So how does one go about making changes without spoiling the essence of the process? Or, how does one go about developing an innovation model from the ground up? Guidance from a set of fundamental principles is the answer.

Declaring a set of principles for innovation “fundamental” may seem presumptuous or even arrogant.

But declaring a set of principles for innovation “fundamental” may seem presumptuous or even arrogant. Doing so would require a thorough understanding of organisational innovation – the driving force behind organisational competitiveness. It would require understanding, and an ability to deploy, that renders it 100% repeatable in all situations. And while there are many who are working on understanding innovation and delivering innovation management solutions, there are none who can lay claim to an all-encompassing and all-relevant understanding. There are certainly experts of various areas within the landscape of innovation, but to “understand” all would (almost) be for business what a “theory-of-everything” would be for science – and innovation, as a management science, is not there yet.

What is however possible is to take cognisance of what has regularly held true, what is seemingly constant over a range of successful and consistently innovative companies, and then, capture this as a set of principles by which innovative companies plan, execute and organise.

…the article essentially has the ulterior motive of testing these ideas…

With this basis, the article proposes a set of principles for innovation. The principles are positioned as a proposal for two reasons. One, they are an arrangement of what has been seen to render organisations consistently innovative by the author over six years of Innovation Management consulting and research and are certainly not claimed to be definitive and all-encompassing. And two, the article essentially has the ulterior motive of testing these ideas with the innovation management community and, eventually, reaching the point that the set of principles for innovation is more robust – striving towards the objective of being “fundamental”. The article and author therefore request your feedback and comments.

The initial set of principles for discussion is as follows:

1. CEO and CXO’s lead culture and drive innovation – it always begins at the top.

2. Innovation Strategy guides business renewal – derive it from corporate strategy, link it to team and individual priorities and objectives, and abide by it.

3. Creativity only becomes innovation once applied and benefits realised – deployment is vital.

4. Accept risk – say “Yes” and “Yes, with condition that…” more often than “No”.

5. Success is desired, but failure is sometimes inevitable – make sure you fail fast (early), fail cheap and fail smart(er).

6. Measure and balance value for the business along multiple dimensions – financial, sustainability, learning, growth, satisfaction, etc.

7. Culture (of innovation) is not a switch (on & off), but a complex arrangement that can be nurtured through careful tuning of

a. Leadership: what management does (not what they say)
b. Policies: prescribed organisational behaviour
c. Structures: how people and teams interact and how this is governed
d. Procedures: the way things are done (not how they are meant to be done)
e. People: all involved, both directly and indirectly
f. Rewards and measures: the ultimate governors of behaviour.

8. Foster community – share, be open, build trust.

9. Engage many perspectives, utilise (appropriately) the “open” in open innovation

a. intensely observe and involve customers
b. engage suppliers
c. involve other departments
d. consult with communities of experts
e. benchmark adjacent industries and competitors
f. build and exploit networks.

10. Think inside, outside and about the box

a. Think inside the box to understand your strengths and weakness,
b. Think about the box to understand your paradigms and constraints, and
c. Think outside the box to understand your customers, your competitors and the environment, and to eliminate stale paradigms and break constraints.

11. Strive to find the unique balance that works for your organisation (and at what time)

a. Open vs. closed approach to intellectual property creation
b. Unstructured creativity vs. structured/rigorous deployment of creativity
c. First-to-market vs. first-in-market, bleeding edge vs. leading edge vs. follower
d. Risk taking vs. risk aversion.

12. Make innovation a core competency

a. Consistently translate opportunities and creativity into business value – innovation is a process – drive and manage it accordingly
b. Continuously explore, build the knowledge-base and absorb into the organisation
c. Be able to think divergently and convergently, but not simultaneously
d. Identify, clarify and manage the unknowns
e. Centralise coordination  and use a common platform
f. Measure, learn and adapt your overall approach à repeat
g. Reward actions and not only outcomes
h. Focus solutions on the “job to be done” – not the tool
i. Task the right people with the right job
j. First focus on effectiveness, then efficiency.

The objective is now to expose these principles to debate by highlighting where they have worked, where they haven’t, proposing deletions and proposing alternatives. This is a process of refinement and it requires your thoughtful input. For this the dedicated forum at is made available.

By Heinz Essmann, contributing editor, South Africa

About the author

Heinz is a perpetual student, having spent much of the last 9 years understanding how companies are built, run and renewed through innovation. He obtained his PhD in Industrial Engineering on the topic of assessing and improving organisational innovation capability. Heinz has more than 5 years of experience in deploying a variety of tools and methods for business building, improvement and renewal as a researcher, business engineering and programme manager at the Innovation Management firm Indutech. Clients range from new and small companies, new spin-off units focussed on innovation, to large corporates and government organisations. He also lectures to final year Industrial Engineering students at Stellenbosch University on the topics of Innovation Management and Enterprise Engineering.
  • Frode Lundsten

    Hi Heinz

    Good article and an impressive list of principles. My experience tells me that few disagree with the principles, but often they end up in a vacuum separated from the business if you second principle is not the first.

    Senior management commitment is needed, yes! But if the link to the business is not the primary driver and intertwined, then the commitment becomes a commitment similar to that given any other senior management project – a project and not a culture or competence.

    Best regards
    Frode Lundsten

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  • Andre

    Hi Heinz

    Nice hearing from you again and thanks for the link to this article.

    I like it and the principles listed are encompassing.
    One of the things that we’ve struggled with is the question on What Is Innovation? Some people believe that we innovate and others not. The root cause of this is no standard communicated definition on Innovation.

    I like the idea of Innovation as Vocation or Innovation DNA. This may be covered in your principle of Innovation Culture. Everyone should be concerned with innovation. How many times have you seen new employees being trained in a certain way of doing a task? Many times when the trainer is questioned on why the work is being done a certain way the answer is “because that’s how I’ve been taught”. When Innovation is part of your DNA there are no Sacred Cows. Believes and paradigms are freely challenged to determine if it is still valid.

    Alignment with business renewal is important. Another way of looking at it is to say that you will use innovation to stay inside your competitors’ renewal cycle. You could add a principle of be your own competition to drive innovation. We see this constantly in the Tech industry where they “eat their children” by essentially bringing out new products to displace their old ones and keep them ahead of the competition. This however, would be as direct result of your business strategy.



  • Heinz Essmann

    Thank you Frode for the comment. I agree with you, alignment with the business is essential. Innovation must align with the organisational vision to be successful (assuming that vision is one that will succeed). That is why an Innovation Strategy is important and why it is a derivative of the business strategy.

  • Heinz Essmann

    Thanks Andre for the great comments.

    On your first statement (paragraph) – yes, I have seen this before as well. What helps is if leadership encourage people to question the norms, but if leadership shuns it then obviously, things wont change. Thus, the first principle – it starts at the top. I have yet to see it otherwise.

    One the second comment – a good suggestion. We talk about being able to “selectively abandon the past”, and that may mean canabalising your own products at times. This is definitely a considerations for the second version of the principles.

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  • Daniel Andersson

    Mr. Essmann,

    Thank you for an interesting article.

    I see the principles you list above as a general summary of the innovation management research. I think the principles are valuble as they serve as a framework, or a compass. But the real work starts after accepting the principles – how implement the innovation principles in the existing business strategy? I would dare to say that it do not work. We need new strategies and new perspectives on management.

    Although the implementation can be planned theoretically and presented as an processual approach for the top management, the real issue is about whether the organization as a whole accept and understand the principles. My own experience tells me that the business management paradigm is in a phase where friction between old and new ideas are present. Old management traditions are well rooted in the common mind of the organization and when presented with the innovation principles the organization assess the process of implementation based on dated views on management. Although the organization is aware of the benefits of innovation and even have a plan for how to work with it – past paradigms still haunt there minds.

    Therefor I think that organizations are ought to ask them self questions like: what is leadership? What is Innovation? What is strategy? Who and where is our customers? And how do all of these influence each other? To implement the innovation principles and begin the long and never ending journey towards improved organizational innovativeness – a new and customed perspective on both management and strategy is well needed.

    Daniel Andersson
    M.Sc Innovation Management

  • Heinz Essmann

    Thank you Daniel for this very interesting perspective. I agree with you – it is one thing to say that these principles are correct (which they are not necessarily), but to implement them into an environment that is fixated on old ways of doing things remains a problem.

    This partly stems from the highly conflicting competencies required for efficiently operating a business (old paradigm of competitive advantage) and the competencies required for renewing that business (innovation). The reality is that companies today need to perform both very well – operate and deliver current offerings very efficiently, while carefully and selectively eliminating certain offerings and renewing the business. In my experience, this has often been a major challenge and one of the first aspects to address (and distinctions to make) when building a company’s innovation capability. Once leadership has seen this distinction and realised that both are necessary, they then need to create an environment in which both sets of competencies can exist (even if separated at times, they must eventually converge or become completely separate businesses).

    Regarding the questions you propose to stimulate the necessary change in paradigm, I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Harun Asad

    I like this. No doubt some room for debate and refinement but overall makes sense I think. I’d be interested in collaborating with others in developing generally accepted innovation principles. Kind regards, Harun

  • Heinz Essmann

    Thank you Harun.

    We would love to hear your comments on the forum at –

  • Bob Jacobson

    Andre, try these “25 Definitions of Innovation” just published by Hutch Carpenter on the Spigit blog:

    Hutch collected these definitions — the best short list I’ve yet seen — from participants in the various LinkedIn innovation-related newsgroups, people on Blogging Innovation, and other sources. Well done.

  • Bob Jacobson

    Oops, the URL disappeared. Here it is (I hope):

  • Bob Jacobson

    Innovation Happens.

    That’s the truth. It happens whether or not the leaders of an organization or its membership (public, private, NGO, or Third Sphere) acknowledge it or agree with it. Innate innovators — the subject of an article I’m working on right now for IM — can’t help but to keep innovating.

    The challenge is for those who can benefit by these innovators’ labor is not to let them hang out to dry, like the impoverished Mozart in his dying days; nor to lump them in with the horde of would-be innovators who concoct theories and methodologies, none very creative or productive, to exploit the recognition of authentic innovation’s worth.

    The challenge is to identify, nurture and support these individuals and the ad hoc groups of like-minds to which they belong.

    Frequently, I venture, these innate innovators by definition have a better handle on what problems need solving and ways to do it than managers who interpose themselves as corporate overseers. We know from Silicon Valley’s experience, among others’, that innovation that is forced in one direction or another, like gas in a balloon finds its way elsewhere, often emerging as a competing company or agency.

    My hypothesis is strengthened by the evidence of how many “managed” innovation projects go awry or simply do not achieve their goals. (I have heard numbers touted in the range of 80-90 percent of all projects.) Perhaps this is one fundamental domain — important and essential — where the Taoist stance of readying for change but not attempting to shape or force it is most appropriate.

    I know these ideas are not popular among designers who love to get in there and tinker as soon as a problem is detected, applying their constraints and producing wonderful geegaws, conceptual and physical, that everyone admires until they are put to the test of being applied or used. This is also the case among many innovation managers who have not yet come to recognize that innovation is a rare state of mind as well as a definable process and manageable methodology. The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg, to remind us of the universal parable.

    In the Swedish context, there is a semantic linkage, very historic, between the words “innovation” and “invention.” One innovates to invent things. In fact, to innovate is to invent. But that usage, while not peculiar to Sweden, is not sufficiently inclusive of the full range of perceptual and cognitive processes, even (as I said before) states of mind that precede creating a thing, an organization, a method, or a mythology.

    Sadly, the literature on innovation is stunted in this key regard, which is what makes so many prescriptive writings so dubious on their face. Until we really get in there to learn more about innovation, and don’t just treat it as purely inspired creativity or glorified engineering, we really don’t know what we’re talking about (although the talk may be on point and is always entertaining). It’s time for us to really learn what it is that we say we do and are expert about!

  • Heinz

    A thought Bob…before the advent of “managed innovation” success rates of less than 5% were common. Is an increase from 5% to 20% in the success rate worth it?

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