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John Bessant is Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Exeter University. Back in May 2015 he gave a talk at our Innovation Forum in Bonn (he’s coming back again in April 2016). One of the interesting ideas he talked about was spaghetti innovation, and the need to weave more connections in and out of your innovation network. Here’s a breakdown of John’s idea.

When we discuss our innovation programs, we tend to talk in terms of processes and frameworks, which is fine, and it does a good job of explaining our goals. But we should not forget that this is not what actually happens. A process diagram is not how innovation occurs. Instead, it’s more like a big mess of spaghetti, with each strand representing a connection. For any innovation to happen it requires strands from areas such as product, marketing, legal, finance to all come together to realize it.

Strands from outside the organization are increasingly vital to our ability to innovate. Our job, as innovation leaders, is to weave more and more of these connections together.


Source: John Bessant


Source: John Bessant

Why is this important?

We’re drowning in knowledge spaghetti. Something like 1,500 billion dollars is spent every year on R&D around the world. This means that no matter what we do ourselves, we are barely scratching the surface of what is actually happening outside the organization, in all kinds of adjacent and potentially related areas.

We have very good market and consumer knowledge for about 1 billion people - we know their needs, their behaviors, desires, etc. But there are 6 billion people who we don’t have any good understanding of, and these are members of the emerging markets, where we lack good connections and good knowledge; they are not part of our knowledge spaghetti, but to innovate in the future, they need to be.

The good news is that we have a label for this overarching problem of spaghetti knowledge; we call it Open Innovation. Henry Chesbrough provided the realization that even the largest and most capable organizations don’t have all the smart people they need to sufficiently innovate in today’s environment. Once you accept this, it begins to open up a lot of possibilities. It begs the question of who is out there that can help us.

But even before Chesbrough, we have understood that innovation is a multi-player game; it’s about making connections both inside and outside. The more strands you can weave together, the more possibilities you can create. It’s also not just about finding and acquiring technology, this would be a naive view. Rather, it’s about knowledge flow, and being adept at moving and trading upon knowledge in both directions.

Tools to help us make connections

New tools have emerged in the last decade to assist us with this challenge. Innovation campaigns and contests allow us to focus a targeted group of people at a specific problem for a specific period of time. This targeted group of people doesn’t have to be employees, we can bring in different networks for different problems, such as academia, partners, defined experts, or customers. Innovation marketplaces can provide a network of experts willing to help solve a problem, you can tap into this network at any time, and even do it anonymously. These tools and companies are there to help make connections happen, and knowledge exchange faster and more scalable.

Moving beyond the established frame

Companies have become good at working in the incremental & established frame (see chart below), and are becoming much better at working in the radical & established frame. The challenge going forward is to think both incrementally and radically in a new frame. A new frame means the new frontier, the 6 billion people we don’t understand, and with places where we lack any real knowledge.


Source: John Bessant

In the right hand side of the box things are different. It is not planned, and there is no obvious process in place. It’s much more reliant upon the ability to co-evolve, co-create, and allow for emergence. Practically speaking, this means working with others to see what happens, see where experiments take us, and use the learnings from those to adapt. The tools we need are prototyping, probing and learning, and using fast failures to boost our understanding. But the most important thing is for companies to be there, be there early, and be active.

And to play in the ‘green zone’, we need new roles:

  • Brokers - those who create connections, find relationships between people.
  • Scouts - explorers who go out there and find what might be relevant. Any smart company knows how to innovate in its existing frame, but when looking beyond that it is darkness, and scouts are necessary to help you find the right places to go and explore - it’s not a case of looking at everything, a company must pick and choose it’s innovation spaces.
  • Entrepreneurs - people who break the rules and challenge us. These people are flexible, agile, tolerant of ambiguity, and they take risks to learn.
  • System architects - those individuals who are able to see the big picture. People like Edison, Jobs, Ford and Bezos; they see the possibilities at a system level.

You can catch all of John’s 2015 talk below (start at the 20 minute mark for the spaghetti innovation thread):

John Bessant is an inspiring thinker, he challenges us to go beyond where we are today, and not be complacent with our understanding of what it means to innovate. I for one am looking forward to discussing with him again in April when he returns to our Innovation Forum. If you’d like to join us, check out the event here.

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This blog is part of a series regarding the HYPE Innovation Managers Forum 2016.

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Tim Woods

Tim Woods

During his career, which also included a longer stay at HYPE, Tim has been working in the product development as in the marketing sector. With a background in software development, Tim has worked in