How Can We Create Meaningful Innovations?
Our world is on fire — looming ecological disaster, a widening gap between rich and poor, rising nationalism and xenophobia, existential angst and dystopian digital monopolies. The latest wave of innovators, digital entrepreneurs in the mode of the Silicon Valley, have contributed to and deepened this negative trend. Their hugely successful companies, rhetorically claiming to „make the world a better place”, have made a small group of founders and venture capitalists immensely rich, while largely ignoring their harmful consequences for the wider society and the environment.
At the same time many people and communities around the world want to create a more equitable economy and a more just and aware society. They are campaigning for progressive political change, designing regenerative technologies, founding social impact businesses and exploring the vast entrepreneurial opportunities created during the current transformation. Yet these latter innovators haven’t (yet) been able to create powerful companies and institutions.
One reason for this failure lies in the institutional setup of the global startup ecosystem. We will explore this in more depth in a later article (but check out this blogpost in the meantime). Another reason why we don’t see more successful „meaningful“ companies and institutions is that we are lacking the necessary skills and methods to innovate holistically in a complex digital-global environment. Building a new system with old tools can’t work.
At Das Dach, a startup hub and research community, our premise is that systemic change in a complex global and digital world needs a new kind of innovation and manifestation. A new way to envision and implement organisations, products and services. One prerequisite is that innovators take a systemic perspective, which includes much more complexity and is aware of the externalities their innovations are creating. Another requirement is that manifestors need to be able to keep hold of their vision as they manifest their innovations in rapidly changing environments. This complex set of requirements necessitates that individuals themselves have a great degree of mental maturity and are able to perceive and navigate complexity with precision and agility. In the process they are elevating previously excluded competencies, such as intuition and the capacity to relate to one another in a deep way, as core business and management functions.
In this article I’ll be outlining our manifestation process from the initial ideation phase up to the first product launch. It consists of four stages, each of which comprises a number of distinct tools and methods. As you will see these include observable „outer“ techniques, such as new ways to achieve product-market fit. They also consist of important „inner“ factors, such as innovators personal capacities to develop a clear vision, hold tensions and learn to include multiple perspectives.
1. Phase: Visioning
Innovations start with a new idea.
People intend to develop a meaningful innovation (and I’ll expand on what I mean by that below) can start from a number of different points. Some have the loose intention to „do something good“ and methodologically scout market opportunities (for example, as identified by the Sustainable Development Goals). Others are motivated by their personal connection to a specific problem, be it racial discrimination or climate change. Others are inspired by a solution — a new product, service or institution — which appeared seemingly „out of nowhere“.
Whatever the initial launch pad, we understand truly novel ideas — the EUREKA! moments many innovators speak about — to come from a larger space of intuition and inspiration. They truly come “from the future”, when innovators access perspectives which integrate more complexity and see new possibilities, which present more adequate answers to current challenges.
New successful impulses and ideas mostly appear to those who have been actively working on and often struggling with a topic. They are able to combine various elements often from highly diverse areas, which turn out to be „stepping stones“ leading to the final innovation.
But the most original ones seem to come not during times of “hard” analytical thinking, but “open”, relaxed moments, when previously inaccessible ideas “fall into place”. Kahneman and Tversky call this latter approach „fast thinking“, which involves intuition and allows more capacities in your body to be alerted and on fire than just the rational linear function of your brain.
Innovators can do many activities to induce this first stage, all consisting of a mix of “hard” and “open” approaches, from Design Thinking to Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.
When working on a new topic at Das Dach, we follow a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, we immerse ourselves in the wider subject area of the system we want to change, uncovering unmet needs and new opportunities. This can be done through a preliminary desktop and offline market research. During this initial phase, we refrain from studying too much what others have done, as their solutions mostly exist within the current paradigm. In order to come up with something really innovative, it is helpful to be as independent as possible.
At the same time we are using a range of more intuitive techniques, such as deep dialogue, meditation and various visualisation techniques. When you aim to develop something more radically new than just incrementally improving an existing solution, you need to tap into a larger „search space“ than the rational mind. Similarly, when trying to change a whole system instead of just one specific product or service, you need to be able to have a lot of outside complexity on your radar. Again, the linear mind can’t process this wealth of non-linear information. Instead, we need to set the intention to relate to a system mentally, emotionally and physically, thereby taking in much more relevant information. To „know it feelingly“, as Shakespeare has Gloucester say to King Lear. Against this background, we are waiting for new ideas and answers to appear.
This process can happen fast. But often it is more likely to take a couple of months or longer, as innovators take in outer complexity by gathering more information, while also feeling into the system, observing it internally from various angles.
Most people at this stage experience a strong urge to jump to an early conclusion in order to release the tension which automatically builds up when we are in a transition phase. In transition phases we experience a lot of movement and uncertainty. Quickly settling on a solution establishes a new fixed status, thus returning us to safety and clarity.
In addition to these individual preferences, the current startup ecosystem strongly hastens the pace by setting completely arbitrary timeframes for each step in the formation of a company, including the initial phase of „coming up with a solution“. In bootcamps and incubators innovators are expected to come up with „a solution“ within a few days, weeks or 3 months at maximum. In these settings, founders are encouraged to reduce the complexity of a given problem.
Instead, we resolutely advise against these shortcuts, as „idea interruptus“ rarely lead to groundbreaking innovations. Innovators need to take their time. What might appear from the outside as passive waiting time or even procrastination, is, rightly done, an important inner maturation process, during which the initial DNA of the project is formed. Intuition, the combination of thinking and feeling holistically, is a skill which needs to be developed and trained, like a muscle, over time. If we want to create an innovation which in turn creates a more inclusive reality, we need to give ourselves time to build up this new reality within ourselves first.
Of course, this process of productive „idea fermentation“ needs to be differentiated from people’s inability to focus and reluctance to make decisions. Innovators need to discern the difference between „being stuck“ and „still being open to new impulses“. One of the major differences between the two states is that the former is characterised by the lack of any additional movement. More experienced innovators will notice that at the end of the initial ideation phase there often is a release of tension, a feeling of things snapping into place, as well as an increasing sense of internal silence and certainty.
Systemic innovations come from a different value system, for which the institutional and ideological pathways are not fully formed. It is easy to drive a new car on a well-trodden motorway. But what if you design a new transportation device for a new kind of path? Then you need to work on both, the innovation as well as the innovation ecosystem, by creating new outer tools and inner practices. This applies not only to the beginning of the product cycle, the initial ideation, but also to the next phase, assessing and refining of the original idea.
2. Phase: Refining and deepening the original idea
Once a team has settled on an idea which holds the promise to create positive impact, it needs to evaluate, deepen and refine it. The methods we find most helpful at this stage are Spiral Dynamics Mapping, Systems Mapping and Market Context Research, as well as the development of a Key Brand Principle.
As outlined in the previous section, these methods have both an outer and inner aspect. Meaningful innovations for complex environments will need to take account of a broad range of sectors and stakeholders across multiple geographical locations. For such an understanding we have to develop both an analytical ability to understand complex, i.e. nonlinear systems, as well as an emotional ability to sense and embody these systems.
Understanding systems analytically
In order to get as fully contextualised an understanding as possible of the original idea, innovators must “move up” in their perspective. The systems perspective requires us to take multiple perspectives of the different relevant stakeholders (social groups, as well as entities such as the environment etc.) into account and understand the collective dimension of change.
This analytic approach can consists of a number of different methods:
Spiral Dynamics Mapping
Teams can evaluate their initial idea with the help of the Spiral Dynamics sequence outlined in more detail in the The Ecology of Innovation (link). In our understanding true innovations are those which lead to more individual unfolding of potential and are more inclusive, as they are able to host a higher degree of complexity. They contain a „systems view of life“, which includes previously excluded players (such as marginalised groups or nature).
True innovation involves “going up” in this developmental, evolutionary sequence:
Working with teams, we might help them move their initial idea from an “orange” perspective, which mainly focuses on the growth and profitability of an innovation, through to a “green” stage, which includes the relations between people, up to a “yellow” stage, which is connected to the higher purpose, the unfolding of potential etc. and presents an adequate “next level” answer to a given challenge. At this level a team can see the value of all previous stages and assign them their respective place. For example, it can see where rule-based (blue) solutions are necessary and where (orange) efficiencies and profits can be generated, without harming but fostering (green) human relations.
Excursion: The Innovation behind Carbon Loop Technologies
One company we are actively involved in can serve as an illustration for a systemic innovation. Carbon Loop Technologies is turning plant waste into high quality biochar, which is used to improve soil quality and animal health. The production facility is housed in a shipping container and is much more affordable than alternative biochar systems. CLT disrupts the carbon cycle, by inhibiting biomasses from releasing CO2 back to the atmosphere. Instead it stores them for the long-term in the soil or other materials.
CLT deals with a number of traumata, i.e. its innovation consists of reconnecting humans to their environment, re-establishing a relationship which has been out of balance.
We are consuming far too much for the earth to sustain it, exploiting resources such as water, plants, fossils etc. without giving back. Since the industrial revolution we have been actively ignoring that we as humans depend on nature and the earth. There is a lack of felt relation between humans and earth. While the latter is feeding us, we don’t acknowledge that relationship. CLT enables us to reconnect to the earth and to create a carbon positive economy and society.
There is an evolutionary sequence: first, we felt highly dependent of earth and suffered because of it, from hunger to scarcity to illness to natural disasters etc. With the industrial revolution we became much more independent from nature and the relationship seemed to be turned around: now we felt as masters of the earth. But this is not really the case: by putting ourselves above nature, we are ignoring the interdependence between human and natural systems.
In its relationship to nature, humanity is going through a sequence: from dependence, to (increasing) independence to (next level to be acknowledged) interdependence. But we are not (yet) willing to acknowledge the interdependence, as this would include recognising the harm we have inflicted on nature, i.e. confront the shadow of progress and what we believe to be our autonomy.
Interdependence calls for a different economy — a cascading economy. The waste of one process becomes the valuable resource for the next process.
But CLT seems to hit a barrier in society, as we don’t yet see that circular systems such as CLT get recognition in the form of access to capital etc. There are probably several reasons for this, many of which have to do with the characteristics of the startup ecosystem, which reward standardized products and business models while looking for maximum financial profit.
A lot of modern technology allows us to elevate ourselves up from nature. This is the Silicon Valley modus operandi: Let’s become more and more independent and autonomous (in its extreme: let’s move to a Tasmanian bunker if the social shit hits the fan). Thus most solutions propagate a more high-tech, scientific, intellectual approach (which includes Y-Combinators call for Carbon Removal Technologies). These solutions pretend that we don’t need to change our current way of consuming and producing. We, i.e. the elites can continue as we like. We can have our cake and eat it too. This is the win-win approach favoured by elites, who claim to find a solution to the world’s challenges without changing the status quo, questioning our own privilege and lifestyle.
The real solution to this fuck-up consists in acknowledging the shadows (exploitation of nature and a large part of human society, overconsumption, our interdependence with nature) and build systems accordingly. CLT is one of these systemic answers from an entrepreneurial perspective: local, decentralised, low-tech. These need to be accompanied by political solutions for climate justice.
Here lies a crucial tension: CLT doesn’t offer us the comfort of an easy bypass, a disconnecting from nature. Instead it forces us to acknowledge the waste we are creating (plant waste, plus the whole exploitative practices which lead to the carbon crisis) and the interdependence between humans and earth.
Let’s return to the topic of analysing and deepening the systemic dimensions of an innovation. Systemic innovators most likely have a specific human or environmental challenge they want to address with their idea. For this they need a deep understanding of the various factors contributing to the problem in the first place. One way to get an overview of the challenge is mapping it in its wider social, economic, political and environmental dimensions with the help of a Systems Mapping (see Keks Ackerman on The Systems Perspective.)
Another very useful approach to get a comprehensive overview is Market Context Research. At its core are a series of interviews with a whole range of people with widely different perspectives. Depending on the topic these can comprise anything between ten to thirty interviews. It is important to stress that these interviews are not user interviews or formalised focus-groups during which the researcher reads his questions of a questionnaire and notes down the answers. They are the very opposite, informal meetings during which the researcher (be it the founder or core team member) deeply relates to his or her counterpart, absorbing as much explicit and implicit information about the person and their perspective on the topic as possible. The goal is to achieve a complex understanding of a market or situation. To get a better understanding of this process, read the blogpost On the Road in Pakistan: Market Context Interviews with regards to the Pakistani health system.
Once innovators have an analytical overview of their idea within the system, they need to feel and embody it.
Feeling Systems Emotionally
If the new idea is only understood cognitively, there are a few pitfalls. First of all, innovators might find it difficult to fully convey their idea, because the audience won’t be able to fully relate to it, as true relating is not an intellectual but emotional, embodied activity. But as many people are used to ignore the felt aspects of life, they might still be happy to follow the innovator. The bigger challenge is that innovators who are not connected to the felt and emotional essence of their idea risk developing solutions which are not holistic and sustainable, as they only address half of life. Combine this with the push of most conventional investors, who aim for maximum growth and profitability, and the innovators are likely to rationalise their “yellow” (i.e. systemic and potential oriented) idea on green, or more likely, orange principles, thus greatly reducing its potential.
Disembodied innovations are more likely to participate in and strengthen shadow dynamics and systemic dysfunctionalities. In our understanding true innovations offer answers to these shadow dynamics, by enabling society to revitalise contracted, frozen, unconscious aspects of life.
Though the embodiment of innovations complex situations can be experienced on a higher level and turn into simple, “obvious” answers. What is komplex on a lower level, appears simple on a more inclusive, higher level. The solution get anchored in the body and becomes much more real and clear and can function as a guiding north star for all the different decisions in the implementation phase.
Both the analytical and emotional processes are deeply interconnected. As complex situations are fluid, unpredictable and constantly changing, innovators need to watch the system move and develop a felt sense for new answers to emerge. This involves the capacity to hold a larger space, in which the idea and the system are mentally, emotionally and even physically sensed.
Very likely innovators are first overwhelmed and confused by the many perspectives and the complexity of the challenge they are approaching. But at some point all the build-up complexity reaches a stage at which everything suddenly makes sense and feels simple again. Having reached this point, teams can come up with one sentence or one word which nails the essence of their idea. This will seem both intellectually and emotional right.
There is an inherent connection between inner and outer innovation: as we don’t see the world “the world out there”, but it only appears “in” us, on our inner screen, we need to build up our inner complexity in order to be able to see and deal with outer complexity. In this way, the maybe esoteric demand, that we need to be able “to feel the system”, becomes part of a necessary skill set for navigating in complexity. This means for companies: if you want to truly innovate on the outside, you need to go on an inner learning journey yourself during which you will transform your own identity and your view of the world.
The Key Brand Principle
We call this step, when the innovation is stripped down to its simplest, most essential idea, the Key Brand Principle. We arrive there by taking teams through an exercise in which we ask “What is the quality that integrates everything?” For Doctory, the Pakistani health startup featured in the article about Market Context Research above, this idea was „respect“. The concrete process to develop the Key Brand Principle can be found here. When Doctory’s service is accurately created, the feedback from users should rank “respectful” highest among Doctory’s brand attributes.
This essence serves as a touch point to which everything else — team, brand, production, marketing etc — is connected. It serves as the orienting North Star for all further decisions. This one word touches not only intellectually, but emotionally. It allows the idea to be embodied and felt. At the same time, the word is the starting point for the storytelling of the product.
3. Phase: Developing a Product Strategy
Once innovators have refined their initial idea and developed a Key Brand Principle, the latter guides them through the next steps necessary to translate their idea into a concrete product and business. During this next phase, the team needs to go through all the different steps of product development. Our approach adds to this process by making sure that the team stays not only aligned with the Key Brand Principle, but also acknowledges the necessary complexity of the system they are working in.
This is a very important point: very often teams tend to reduce the complexity in order to turn the product development into a more manageable and simpler process. This results in inadequate manifestations, which don’t fulfill their potential, but instead create unforeseen consequences, which society or the public sector are then left to deal with.
Instead, teams will need to develop the capacity to stay with complexity and ambiguity long enough, until a manageable solution emerges that responds to the complexity in a healthy way. This involves having a continuous situational awareness for the relevant stakeholders (users, market, competitors, regulators etc.) and a willingness to constantly unpack and reinvestigate the problem one is trying to solve. This also involves continuously looking out for the unintended consequences of the product or service and a capacity to include those aspects (groups, questions etc.) which may have been excluded from the vision.
An important objective at this stage is to enable as many people in the team as possible to reach the high levels of analytic and emotional understanding of the product as possible. Most often the vision is held by one individual, or a small group. At this point it needs to be transmitted to a critical mass of team members.
Otherwise, if only one or a few people are hosting the Key Brand Principle, there is the danger for those to burn out or feel deeply frustrated.
At this stage we need to make this fact explicit: the team needs to realise that its members live to a certain degree in different realities, i.e. have different understandings of the world and themselves. Similarly, some of its members hold a higher perspective, while others (even though they constellate/gravitate around the idea, because it also “feels right” to them) don’t fully embody it yet.
Now the team needs to go on its own “hunting and learning journey”, during which it will get a much more intimate understanding of the idea and the wider system with its stakeholders. This can be done through a wide range of activities, which also form part of a more conventional product development process, but which are done in a much more holistic way.
Spectrum of One — ethnographic target group research
Our key method at this point is the Spectrum Approach (also called Segments of One) to target group research. The aim of this research is to understand the potential users of the innovation, their challenges, needs and interests, as fully as possible. It differs from the Market Context Research outlined above in that the latter focuses on understanding the wider system and the problem the innovation is trying to solve, while Segments of One narrows down on the direct users, clients, customers.
Segments of One, described in full detail here, differs from conventional market research, in that instead of segmenting the market into distinct target groups, all with their own specific needs and practices, it continuously integrates as much diversity as relevant into one group of people, and looks for the core elements that all potential users have in common.
These interviews don’t limit themselves to a narrow exploration of the interviewees statements, for example regarding how they use certain products. Instead, just as in the interview technique described above for the Market Context Research, the teams tries to take an “emic” perspective, which involves viewing the world from the point of view of the interviewee, how they see their lives, which meaning they attach to different products, which personal or collective dilemmas they aim to bridge/solve through consumption, how certain practices are tied to their identity etc. (This approach makes it more difficult to speak about “users” of a product, a name which refers to a faceless and functional crowd).
Through a much deeper, felt immersion into the life-worlds if their potential customers and other stakeholders, team members gain both an intellectual as well as emotional understanding of the target group. This is an exercise in both empathy and multiperspectivity. You really want the team to meet their human counterparts and relate to them. This will allow you to dive deeper into the collective trauma areas, which the innovation addresses.
Holding the tension between NOW and the implemented IDEA
During this implementation phase, team members have to acknowledge that there is a tension between the current situation, the NOW and the world in which their idea is fully implemented. If we take innovation to be something which discloses a fuller and higher reality, then there is a reason why this reality is not already accessible to many people. But as it is, there is an area in life which is contracted and frozen and which accordingly can’t move freely and be visible.
In the gap between the NOW and the implementation of the innovation sits trauma, collective shadows and blind spots. In this area our vision of reality is reduced and distorted, in such a way that we don’t even know how to ask the relevant questions. (Obvious examples are practices such as slavery and the exclusion of women from the vote, things which were deemed “normal” and “natural” at a certain historical time). True innovation lies in hosting and finally closing this gap, thus enabling society to more fully see itself and the world.
This tension also explains why there are many solutions to current challenges which don’t get picked up. Sometimes, all of a sudden, people start using them and they become the new normal. What has happened and what can innovators do to speed up this process?
As an innovator your task is not only to hold the tension between what wants to be seen but can’t (because of the above mentioned trauma) within the team, but also to move the innovation towards society. You need to find ways to communicate and frame your product in a way that acknowledges where society is. Entrepreneurs need to tune the product into the inspirational range of the audience, into metaphors and mental models people can relate to. Every individual and collective has their inspirational range. Things outside of this range can’t be understood, felt or picked up. The inspirational range is defined by your level of contraction, i.e. the trauma, that area, where energy can’t move freely.
If innovators can create a vortex for development, people will jump on the product and it gets traction, even if it was initially outside of their inspirational range. By closing the gap innovators facilitate a deeply mystical process: they bring something frozen and subconscious back into movement and life and view. Thus trauma can be integrated.
The idea behind the Spectrum Research is to dive into a deeper level and more comprehensive understanding of truth. Teams start with an idea about their potential customers which seem obvious to them. Through deeply embedded market research you uncover many previously hidden truths about customers, how they “tick”, what is important to them etc. (A similar and fascinating approach is described by Hilary Cottam in Radical Help with regards to innovations in the British social welfare system). With time, you arrive at a much deeper, profound and essential truth about them, which in turn becomes the new “obvious”, but on a higher level. The sequence is thus: from “obvious” through “hidden” to a new deeper/higher “obvious”.
In this whole process, the Key Brand Principle gives teams the general direction for their exploration, which is then deeply refined by the Segments of One exploration. At this point, the former complexity feels suddenly very simple.
Companies are successful if they embody the innovation they bring to the world. For that teams need a good analytical and emotional (embodied, multiperspective) understanding of the target group. They also need to be able to hold the tension between the current situation and the implementation of their idea. Team know that they got these things right, that they achieved the right product-market fit, when they get traction.
This is when the MVP comes in. As a term, the minimum viable product (MVP) comes with so much baggage and is so often misuse that we are tempted to discard it all together. Too often startups and founders jump on an MPV far too early, wilfully cutting out all the complexity which is needed in order to create a meaningful systemic innovation. Yet, it makes sense to identify and test the smallest piece possible which can validate core assumptions of the team. We find it useful to differentiate between different MVPs. MVPs can help us explore the problem we are trying to solve and test whether we have identified the right one. Other MVPs are useful to validate a solution, for example to see if an app is the right approach. MVPs can also be employed to test various pieces of the execution (such as testing a sales approach by hiring a small team for a few weeks).
When testing a solution, teams need to be wise to pick that piece for an MVP which is connected to their Key Brand Principle. This is where startups often derail: they get traction with something which is not fully aligned to their vision. But everybody is relieved and happy, including the investors, even though there is a gap to the core idea. This happens because profit and growth are the guiding performance principles. Once derailed it is difficult to get a product back aligned to its Key Brand Principle.
4. Phase: Making an innovation sustainable by balancing the four quadrants
In Where do we come from, where are we going to? I introduce Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrant Model, the AQAL. This model assumes that every phenomenon has multiple dimensions: inner and outer, individual and collective.
The innovation impulse can originate in all four quadrants. For example, an innovator can be inspired to redress a collective problem in the outside world, such as carbon emissions by companies. Or the inspiration can come from the desire to help individuals develop their potential. Wherever the innovations inspiration came from, over time the other quadrants need to be included and balanced out. This requires work in all fields of the AQAL. Outer innovations, in the area of technology or business models, need to be balanced with innovations in the inner dimensions such as the company culture. In order to be able to do this, teams need to develop the capacity and the patience to be continuously attuned to perceiving movement. Sustainability thus depends on the innovators capacity to be aware of their own movement, their companies movement and the movement of the world around them.
This step lasts forever. Balancing the AQAL is the maintenance system which makes an innovation sustainable. Instead of fixing it to the status quo, it stays fluid. This involves constantly asking questions: What are we perceiving? What are we not seeing? Who are we including and excluding? What resistance are we hitting — in us, or in the market, or in society? What are the intended and unintended consequences of our product? How can we adjust it to suit the new dilemmas arising? What do we need to learn in order to implement our innovation on the adequate level of complexity?
Many once great and highly innovative companies get stuck at a later stage. With their products companies such as Google, facebook or AirBnB have successfully created a new reality, a vision of the world which influences other people’s understanding and identity. But in order to manage growth and profitability, they optimise their structure and processes, anchoring them to a certain level, without lifting their ceiling and continuously updating their product, staying aligned to their highest potential.
Going through the process of continuous updating demands an understanding of the roadblocks and barriers involved. Most innovative teams hit periods or topic areas where they struggle. Instead of projecting the difficulties on the outside world — I need more time before I come out with the idea, the customers are too stupid for my idea, funders don’t get it etc. — innovators can learn to understand when they are hitting a limit in themselves or the collective and how to overcome them.
In this article I described a number of different processes, suitable for creating meaningful innovations. Whenever we talk about processes, they sound linear. But the different approaches and methods are not following a strictly linear sequence. Instead, they follow a process Mike LaVigne calls “Accordionization”. As with an accordion, the innovator shrinks and expands different steps and phases along the whole creative process. Sometimes you skip a step, because it seems trivial. At other times you need to expand, doing a lot of research and experimentation. Certain processes need to be repeated at various intervals, staying true to the overall principle of meaningful innovations: their ability to be open to movement.