Walking on the Edge with Innovation


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According to John Hagel and John Seely Brown for the Aspen Institute Roundtable Discussion in 2012, the place where innovation is most likely to flourish is not at the core of an organization but at the edge “where the weight of inertia is less inhibiting and where disruptive initiatives are more likely to be tolerated”.  Edges are described as peripheral areas where growth has the highest potential. They can also be the riskiest.

By contrast, the “core” of an organization or market is where the money and resources are located. The core is also the most resistant to change. The core makes up the central or essential part of a company, market, or industry.

In order to sustain innovation, risks must be undertaken. No Risk: No Innovation.  Put another way, No guts, no glory. Without risk, there can be no Innovation. Entire industries were made possible only by the risks taken in developing and commercializing them; from the 19th century advances in railroads and steam engines all the way to the invention of electricity and the later development of light bulbs, televisions, computers, internet, biotechnology, and more.

According to another article by Mr. Hagel and Mr. Brown for the HBR network, “unmet needs and unexploited capabilities tend to surface first on the edge.” In order to best take advantage of this tendency, they suggest bringing the core to the edge by exposing your company to “institutional innovations and new management practices” that emerge on the edge.

In order to foster initiative and innovation, ask yourself these questions.

  • Do you allow free research and development (R&D) time?
  • Do you invest in innovation: money, people, and resources?
  • Do you celebrate failure and risk taking?
  • Are you willing to bring the core of your business to the edge?

Although being on the edge can be risky, it is well worth it. Personal laptops were once on the edge of the traditional computer industry. Mobile banking at one time was considered the “edge”.  Hagel and Seely point out that even the iPod emerged on the edge of a number of industries, including consumer electronics, music, and the Internet.


To create a culture of innovation and risk taking, organizations should:

Encourage well-reasoned risk taking. Let your people feel safe to fail, but empower them to do their best work. Encourage or insist upon a plan to be presented first, to ensure understanding and buy-in across the affected organization. Know your tolerance for risk and failure in the pursuit of innovation. The key however, is to make failure a “learning experience

Test. True innovation requires thorough testing in pursuit of success. Testing, measurement, and an accounting of what’s been learned, even in failure, bring measurable outcomes from successes and failures alike.

Trust. Trust your people to pursue new ideas on behalf of your company. Build a culture of trust in individual’s pursuits but ensure safety measures are in place to safe guard against failure damaging the organization.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Robert Brands
Innovation Coach and Author of "Robert's Rules of Innovation" Past CEO of Airspray the manufacturer that brought instant foaming dispensers like hand soap to market


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