Minds, Clouds + Innovative Organisations

What are the similarities between a cloud, a healthy human mind and an innovative organisation?

It may sound like the introduction to a cheesy one-liner, but my reading of MindSight by Dr Daniel Siegel has helped me understand a new picture for how organisations can maintain their innovative edge.

Firstly, each of these are complex systems. In short, a complex system is characterised by two main features - a capability of being chaotic, and an openness to receiving input from external elements.

Think of a cloud. They are certainly capable of random, chaotic distribution - as anyone in New Zealand experienced the past week! - and they receive energy from sources outside of itself. This makes clouds complex and difficult to predict, as they can emerge, transform and disappear based on a range of factors.

Any complex system can self-regulate. Clouds self-regulate themselves by a complex range of interactions between all the external elements, determining how they unfold over time.

Siegel focuses on this metaphor for the human mind, arguing that these are just as capable of becoming chaotic and are open to influences from outside of ourselves. The healthy human mind is one that has learned to self-regulate, and chart the course between rigid sameness and chaotic disorder.

The same is true of healthy organisations. 

All organisations are capable of random acts of seeming chaos - just ask any employee!

All organisations are subject to a range of inputs from the outside - including market forces, demand, global events, policies and technological change.

And all healthy organisations learn to self-regulate - to optimise so they avoid an irrelevant rigidity, or a trend-chasing chaotic reality.

So, what are the elements of these healthy innovative organisations? 

Siegel uses the helpful mnemonic FACES to identify an integrated, healthy mind - and it has some interesting applications to an innovative organisation.

1. Flexible.

An innovative organisation must have the structural ability to flex when situations change. This is a cultural requirement, that is modelled and enforced by upper-management. 

Although an organisation may claim to be innovative, and may be aware of new opportunities to undertake - often the prevailing culture and organisational structure does not allow the flexibility to pursue this.

Much of this comes from a cost-counting model, which bases decisions on risk mitigation to return. Unfortunately, most organisations I have worked with do not account for the risk of rigidity - and end up paying this cost in the future.

2. Adaptive. 

An innovative organisation must be able to identify the trends and changes that require adaptation. This requires a dual leadership ability to look outward at the changing world, and inward at the changing organisation - and seek to align the two. 

History is littered with many businesses that failed to identify the trends that threatened their offering, and neglected the opportunity to profit off this trend. 

Additionally, many of the new leaders identified trends while they were in their infancy, and adapted their organisation to suit. 

Cloud computing, Internet of Things, co-creation, integrated eco-systems, wearables, eco-economy - all of these trends are now alive and running. Did you adapt early? Have you adapted now?

3. Coherent. 

A healthy mind tells a coherent narrative of the purpose and sense of the individual’s life, interpreting all events through this story. Similarly, an innovative organisation has a clear, coherent narrative that drives all they do. 

This is more than just a social branding exercise, but instead helps the organisation identify their path for the future. With a fast-changing world and fickle trends - an organisation needs a coherent story and values to guide them through times of uncertainty. 

This story guides the innovation of products and services, and directs the key measures of these innovations. 

4. Energised. 

An energised organisation sees the external world as full of possibility, and seeks to turn negative threats into positive opportunities. 

We all have experiences of working or visiting an organisation that drains energy. The colours seem dull, doors are often shut, and employees are going through the motions. There are hushed conversations about threats, failure to adapt, and a grey view on the future of the company. 

Innovative organisations are full of energy - it is something that you can feel. Conversations begin with “How might we…?” Innovators are rewarded. People work with a smile, and collaboratively.

This energy is a sign of a high-performing team. Although it sounds unmeasurable and immaterial - it is both quantifiable and significant for an organisation’s innovation.

5. Stable. 

An unhealthy mind will often fluctuate between optimal performance, neurotic chaos, and paralytic rigidity. It is a tiring rush from extreme to extreme - with little sustained health.

Similarly, an unhealthy organisation will have brief bursts of innovation but will not be able to sustain this into the life of the organisation. Innovation will be centred on a person or a project - and will cease once the person leaves, or the project finishes.

We are seeing this now with Apple. What was once an innovation powerhouse could not keep stable, but has gradually decreased to a fluctuation between unchanging rigidity (the lack of upgrades to Mac Pro) and chaotic decisions (such as the touch bar on the new laptops).

These are the FACES of a healthy innovation culture. This is modelled and communicated by senior leaders, and spreads throughout an organisation.

When you apply these to your organisation - how do you fare? Which characteristic is strong, and which is lacking?