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This week’s guest post is another international submission, from Tim McKenna, CEO of Australian-based Team Technology. He’s a professional electronics engineer turned professional systems analyst and programmer. As described in his Twitter bio, Tom is a creative thinker, inventor, entrepreneur, and ICT professional with lots of ideas for business strategies and start-ups.

Tim shares his perspective on a frequently discussed issue – challenging your own perspective to be able to imagine possibilities beyond today’s reality:

An Innovation Dilemma

A major innovation barrier is people having preconceived ideas about how a product or process is structured or meant to work. This has been termed Structural Fixedness.

“Structural Fixedness” inhibits creativity since it prevents us from redefining a view of something we currently take for granted – our frame of reference. It doesn’t thwart innovation altogether, but we do become limited to exploring only ideas built upon what we already believe to be true. Our frame of reference, of course, changes depending on the nature of the concepts, processes, or problems we’re dealing with.

Our individual frames of reference result from our learning and experiences; they’re part of who we are. We cannot perform our jobs, or even operate as adults, without knowledge, behaviours, and belief systems. If we wish to be truly innovative, though, we need to have the courage to challenge and renew our own frames of reference. This means pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone, which isn’t for everyone.

My background is in engineering, project management, and software development. I consider myself an innovator in the software field. Since my background is somewhat different from most software developers, I don’t feel bound by the same “rules,” especially since they can vary greatly depending on whom you talk to or where you work. The result? I tend to question concepts and practices others probably take for granted.

To add to the problem, we have “best practices” and “bodies of knowledge” thrust upon on us. It’s a dilemma that best practices help ensure quality outcomes while by their very nature restricting innovation. They do this by functioning as rules about how certain tasks should be performed. Yet in rapidly changing industries – such as software – new products, tools, and development methodologies appear all the time, making it a struggle to define best practices anyway.

Breaking established rules sets us up to become targets for critics who are uncomfortable with the concept. Co-workers and others in the industry become insecure when forced to question their own knowledge and principles, which also adds to criticism.

Violating rules and achieving successful outcomes is the surest way for innovators to attract criticism and animosity. By successful, I mean a business, a client, or market is pleased with the result. So while important audiences are rewarding your willingness to look at and behave differently in these situations, to the rule-bound, you’ll seem like a bank robber who gets away with millions AND gets to spend it, all while escaping the law! – Tim McKenna


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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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2 Responses to “An Innovation Dilemma – Guest Post from Tim McKenna”

  1. David Locke says:

    Best practices commoditize, so they make themselves irrelevant. Everyone converges on them and in doing so makes themselves the same as everyone else.

    Structural fixedness are aliases for constraints. Ultimately, a product either breaks or weakens a constraint. It may find a way around a constraint. Commoditization of such a product will contextualize that product as continuous or discontinuous, which determines how much shift is required to exploit the product.

    Since a commoditization of a product requires commitment, it is also true that the underlying approach can be changed midstream.

    Object-oriented programming was radical, then it was reframed as an extension of functional when operating systems reembodied themselves to be object oriented, but in a weaker form. This led to a situation where the full promise of object oriented was not achieved, so these days authors write about object thinking attempting to reignite the revolution.

    For some categories, this means that the radical innovation is just a contextualization away from the commodity. This without Moore's unserved, or Christensen's underserved markets.

    From the perspective of the customer's business, they may benefit from jumping the tracks of convergence and best practices to find the next practice, to find differentiation, to find competitive advantage.

    The radical or discontinuous will break the constraints where incremental leaves them in place. The continuous will not breach the constraint. The contiuous might improve performance in the face of that constrain without changing the underlying processes. The continuous might create an overserved situation.

    Surprise yourself and find an old revolution that fizzled out, and ignite that revoluiton again.

  2. Mike Brown says:

    Thanks David for your comment. It's so thorough, it's like another guest post for the day. Thanks for increasing the blog's value today!

    Mike